Alexander O’Neal Taught The Convenience How to Construct a Pop Song

The New Orleans duo sings the praises of the overlooked classic Hearsay.

Sunday. Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. Friday. Saturdaaaaaaay. 

I’m sure I had heard “Saturday Love” by Alexander O’Neal & Cherrelle before — it’s a staple on throwback R&B radio — but this time was different. Duncan and I were coming back from a falafel run when it exploded out of the car stereo. Everything about the song, from its unbelievably massive chord changes to its futuristic synth patches and sparkling textures, felt fresh and modern. 

Through some quick googling, we found that the duo behind this funk-pop masterpiece were none other than producers and songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis; we dove headfirst into their back catalog. I couldn’t believe the breadth and experimental nature of their output — from the proto-hyperpop of the early Janet Jackson records (she is the GOAT) to the cold sophisti-funk of the Human League, to the contemporary gospel magic of Sounds of Blackness, there really was no place sonically or musically they were unwilling to go. They could incorporate cutting edge digital sounds and sampling without losing sight of the song, making their records feel both futuristic and classic. The hardest industrial grooves could sit comfortably next to the most beautiful piano ballad on the same album without it sounding forced or unnatural. Their chords are unbeatable. They even wrote and produced one of my favorite Usher songs, “U Remind Me,” still leading the pack 20 years after they started.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis got their first taste of success as members of The Time, a band formed as an alternate outlet for Prince in the early ‘80s. After having toured the world and seeing their popularity explode after the release of Purple Rain, they had the confidence to leave the group and produce records on their own. Alexander O’Neal had actually been pegged to be the frontman for The Time, but had an argument with Prince about compensation and was soon replaced by Morris Day — but Jimmy and Terry Lewis had promised that they would come back for him. 

They made good on that promise, and thank goodness, because Alexander’s 1987 album Hearsay, is a classic. From the opening major chord euphoria of “(What Can I Say) To Make You Love Me,” I was hooked. Alexander’s vocal performance is unbelievable. He has this incredible talent of making every vocal fill and adlib feel like a hook, and despite the macho bravado of some of the lyrics, there is such a deep longing and melancholy in his voice; it really moves me every time I hear it. Throughout the album, it sounds like he’s singing every line as if it could be his last. Total conviction. 

The title track is a masterclass in dreamy pop, almost Fleetwood Mac-ish in chord progression, with a groove that just goes and goes. When he sings, “They wanna break up our happy home,” he injects the line with so much emotion that you really believe that his entire world could fall apart. When we were making our album Accelerator, we would spend hours poring over songs like “Fake” and “Criticize,” trying to understand how a tightly constructed pop song could be built from the ground up. This triggered a fundamental change in our writing process — we started building songs starting with rhythm and texture first, eventually finding a song during this slow process of discovery, rather than sitting at the guitar or piano and writing a chord progression and melody. We became obsessed with the way different rhythmic and melodic lines could piece together like a jigsaw puzzle, a feat that Jimmy and Terry make look easy on Hearsay. 

A lot of what makes these tracks so rewarding to go back and listen to again and again is the attention to detail. These songs are literally overflowing with melody. One of my favorite moments on the record comes at the midpoint of second-side slow burner “Crying Overtime,” in which an emotive synth line comes in as the drums drop out and the bass line reharmonizes the chord changes. It is spine tingling in its beauty and really takes its time before some gorgeous synthetic harps and bells usher in end of the song. 

Alexander O’Neal had some moments after Hearsay — see the avant-funk sample-delica of Y.O.K.E., and the heaviest Christmas song of all time, “Sleigh Ride” — but he would never match the focus in songwriting, production, and powerful singing of his 1987 masterpiece. When he released the album, he was 33 years old and had spent the previous 15 years cutting his teeth in Minneapolis, and you can hear his dedication in the music. He is truly a master of his craft on Hearsay. And while sometimes the production of Top 40 pop can feel corporate and cold, this record is bursting with humor and camaraderie, with the added bonus of having all three collaborators operating at the absolute peak of their powers.

Accelerator is out October 22 via Winspear.

(Photo Credit: left, Dani Leal)

The Convenience is Nick Corson and Duncan Troast, a New Orleans-based pop band. Their debut record Accelerator is out October 22 via Winspear.

(Photo Credit: Dani Leal)