“I think this time around I am gonna do it, like you never knew it…”
“In the spring of 1980, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, a very talented songwriting team, sat down with me to talk about my career and what was happening in my life. ‘I’m Coming Out’ was the result of that meeting” (Diana Ross, Secrets Of A Sparrow, 201).
In fact, the entire diana album – released in May of 1980 – was the result of the creative talks between Ross and the writing/producing team. Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were the force behind Chic, an R&B/dance group that was on a major hot streak thanks to hits like “Le Freak.” They’d also taken Sister Sledge to the top of the charts with the hits “He’s The Greatest Dancer” and “We Are Family.” Diana Ross, however, was the first major star Rodgers and Edwards worked on an album for, and she was apparently ready for something radically different. According to Rodgers in The Billboard Book Of Number One R&B Hits, “She said, ‘I don’t want this to sound like L.A. at all. I left California, I’m in New York. I’ve got a whole new life here’” (275).
A new sound is definitely what she got and, it turns out, what the public wanted. diana shot to #1 on the R&B album chart and #2 on the pop album chart (her best showing since Lady Sings The Blues hit #1 in the early 70s). The first single, “Upside Down,” was a monster smash, topping the pop and R&B charts for a month (!) and garnering Diana another Grammy nomination. The second single, “I’m Coming Out,” hit the top 5. Both songs have become classics, with “I’m Coming Out” still showing up in movies and commercials and being sampled by other artists, more than thirty years after it was first released. The fact that diana was such a smash success isn’t necessarily a surprise – it’s a very cool album – but it’s pretty amazing when you consider that it came nearly 20 years into Diana Ross’s career. Ross had signed with Motown Records in 1961, and had been a full-fledged star since 1964 (when the Supremes first hit #1 with “Where Did Our Love Go”). Many artists are lucky to have a good ten years of making hits, if that. This LP, however, delivered Diana Ross to an entire new generation of fans – some of whom probably weren’t even born yet when she first hit the top with the Supremes.
All of the success aside, diana is a stunning album. Rodgers and Edwards managed to come up with a tracklist of strikingly original tunes, and Diana’s directive to not “sound like L.A. at all” resulted in an album far less glossy than previous LPs like Baby It’s Me, Ross, and even The Boss. Though the songs here don’t challenge her vocally in quite the same way her previous outing did, she turns in tough, forceful performances here, with an appealing sort of swagger that’s different than anything Diana Ross had ever released before. The lady singing “Upside Down” and “Give Up” here sounds like she could (and would) beat up the one who sang “To Love Again” just a few years earlier; after some soul-searching on The Wiz soundtrack and The Boss, she certainly sounds like she knows who she is this time around.
1. Upside Down: Diana’s 5th solo #1 hit (and 17th when you count her work with the Supremes) features a track built on major to minor chord changes that — according to Nile Rodgers — weren’t that complicated. However, when you’ve got the striking strings, Rodgers’s dynamic guitar, and Bernard Edwards blasting out his bass, it all adds up to a dizzying, hypnotic R&B dance track that sounds as complex as anything Diana Ross had ever recorded. Atop the head-spinning instrumental is a lyric that’s vague and repetitive — qualities that wouldn’t likely be a good thing on another song — but that are perfect (and necessary) here; with such a strong, percussive background, a simple lyric is exactly what’s needed to ground the song and keep it accessible. Diana’s performance here is crisp, clean, and down-to-earth; the vocal runs and powerful belting of “The Boss” are completely gone, replaced by a punchy, staccato performance. Again, she sounds tougher here — even though she’s singing about being cheated on by her man, she’d not weepy or over-emotive, and actually sounds kind of irritated. Diana Ross has never been a singer who gives more or less than what a song requires; when necessary, she can wail and her vocals can soar, and when it’s called for, she can dim her voice to barely more than a whisper. On “Upside Down,” she keeps it simple, and it works — after all, had she been over-singing and added gratuitous melisma, wouldn’t she have sounded totally ridiculous saying things like “Respectfully, I say to thee…”?
2. Tenderness: Much more than “Upside Down,” this song really sounds like a Chic tune — the recognizable backgrounds by Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin are loud and robust here, and the voices are identical to what you hear on songs like “Good Times” and “I Want Your Love.” That said, “Tenderness” is a strong track, and probably could have been pulled as a single and gained some good airplay. The track here isn’t quite as unusual as that on “Upside Down,” but spotlights the “Chic strings” on a clipped, stabbing instrumental line (in a way, almost reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s famous Psycho score) which is memorable. Diana’s performance is a little more vulnerable than on the previous track — but not much. She’s singing in a higher key, so she sounds a little more energetic and younger, but she’s still pretty no-nonsense; she sticks to the melody here, singing each note clearly and with strength, but with no embellishments whatsoever. In a strange way, songs like “Tenderness” and “Upside Down” take Diana’s vocals back closer to what they were in the 1960s, on songs like “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” Diana Ross had taken to letting her vocals lag behind the melody ever since her relaxed work on Lady Sings The Blues — but here, she’s anticipating the beat much more again, vigorously hitting her notes as she did on many of her urgent Holland-Dozier-Holland hits at the beginning of her career.
3. Friend To Friend: The album’s one true ballad, this is a strange, sparse song that comes almost as an antithesis Diana Ross’s work with Michael Masser. Unlike the string-laden ballads of her past — “I Thought It Took A Little Time,” for example — the instrumental track here is almost non-existent. Diana basically sings over a series of chords, her voice settling deep into the lower end of its range, nicely filling up the empty spaces. This is, again, an unadorned vocal performance, but it’s far more relaxed than on the previous two tracks — here, Diana sounds appealingly dreamy, as though she’s singing to a sleeping child. On an album that’s so heavy on percussion and bass, it’s important to give listeners a little bit of a break, and this song accomplishes that perfectly…especially in light of the explosion of energy that will follow with the next track…
4. I’m Coming Out: From the opening vocal announcement (“I’m…Coming…Out!”) atop an absolutely smoking guitar line and vibrant horn section, this song has “hit” written all over it. This is, easily, one of the greatest dance songs of the modern recording era, and is certainly one of the best singles Diana Ross ever recorded and released. As upbeat and joyous as “The Boss” and as anthemic as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” this is Diana at her best; the memorable lyrics (“There’s a new me coming out, and I just have to live, and I wanna give, I’m completely positive…”) are delivered with fiery certainty by Miss Ross, who clearly felt a close connection with the lyrics. The melody line here is much more complex than on any of the previous songs on the LP, so it’s nice to hear Diana use a little more of her range — in particular her shout during the word “out” at 5:10. The song structure here is brilliant — almost the entire first minute of running time serves as an intro, with Diana’s signature “I’m Coming Out!” repeated as the instrumental line builds, until the track finally bursts alive with Bernard Edwards’s booming bassline. Though the song is considered a gay anthem today for obvious reasons (I can only imagine the response this got in gay clubs when it first played during the summer of 1980 — it must have been wild), the lyrics truly are universal; Diana Ross has said that the song had a deep, personal meaning for her in terms of taking creative control of her career. “I’m Coming Out” was a huge hit, of course, and remains one of Diana’s most popular songs, but it’s hard to believe that she didn’t get a Grammy nomination for this song — I’d make the case that she should’ve won Best R&B Female Vocal Performance that year for this performance. It also deserved to at least be nominated as Record and Song of the Year — it’s rare that a recording captures the excitement of an entire movement in its words and music, but this one does.
5. Have Fun (Again): Nile Rodgers, in the liner notes to the CD re-issue of diana, has this to say about “Have Fun (Again)”: “I think the track that someone’s gonna have a No. 1 sampled record with is ‘Have Fun (Again).’ That is one of the coolest grooves we have ever thought of. It kills me when the track fades back in.” Listening to the song, it’s easy to understand why Rodgers is so fond of it; instrumentally, this is one of the heaviest-hitting songs on the album, with an aggressive guitar accompanying Diana on the verses, and one of the strongest bass lines on the entire LP. The song is also probably the strangest one here from a sonic standpoint; the backing vocals (the most prominent since “Tenderness”) are sung in a clipped, staccato manner and feature a slight echo which makes them sound almost like voices from outer space. In a way, that memorable track and the odd, generic voices foreshadow “Genius Of Love,” a hit for Tom Tom Club the next year (and, coincidentally, one that already does have a #1 sampled record – “Fantasy” by Mariah Carey – like Nile Rodgers hopes for this one). Diana works to show a little personality here, setting herself apart from the weirdly robotic voices behind her with some growls and some, truthfully, uninspired ad-libbing for the final half of the running time. Though it is indeed a “cool groove,” it’s not Diana’s finest hour on diana; she’s singing the words “have fun” over and over, but doesn’t really sound completely convincing. She sounded inspired and invested on “I’m Coming Out,” but that energy just isn’t quite matched here.
6. My Old Piano: This was the third single release from diana; it was a decent hit in the UK but didn’t really go anywhere in the United States (probably thanks to the fact that another Diana Ross single, “It’s My Turn,” had been released off the film soundtrack of the same name was doing well for her). Aside from “I’m Coming Out” and the LP’s final track, “Give Up,” this is the most energetic track, an upbeat ode to a baby grand piano with an “international style” and “eighty-eight key smile.” Though it’s really a pretty silly song, it’s extremely catchy and Miss Ross sounds great here – rather than using the Chic voices for background, Diana’s voice is layered on the choruses, which makes this more of a showcase for her. Though the song doesn’t require a lot of range, the vocal here is a powerful one, especially during the verse about 2:00 in, during which Diana puts a lot of force into her readings of lyrics like “…he demands the middle of the room…” Being that the song is about a piano, it makes sense that some prominent piano ad-libbing comes in toward the end, and it’s a nice change of pace from the album heavy leaning toward strings and percussion.
7. Now That You’re Gone: Overall, this is probably the least memorable song on the LP; it’s not a bad tune, but it’s much lower-key and more repetitive than most of the others, and thus gets a little lost, especially coming between the stronger tracks “My Old Piano” and “Give Up.” More than anything, “Now That You’re Gone” is a showcase for Bernard Edwards and his bass; the bass line here is the most important aspect of the instrumental track, and almost serves as a duet partner for Diana on the choruses. This gives the song a nice, urban edge – it’s certainly the most traditionally R&B/soul-sounding song on the LP. This is the second song in a row on which Diana is singing with herself – her own voice is layered on the chorus, and she sings in harmony with herself, which adds a little variety to the album. In a few years, Diana would team up again with Bernard Edwards for the song “Telephone” from her Swept Away album, and the two songs actually sound quite similar, with “Now That You’re Gone” coming off as a kind of rough draft for the later recording, which is a bit more complex (and was a Top 20 R&B hit).
8. Give Up: Though “I’m Coming Out” is the masterpiece of this LP, and “Upside Down” is a ridiculously strong track, the album’s closer features the strongest Diana Ross vocal performance, and is probably the best non-single on the entire work; this is a fun, high-energy dance track with equally fun, high-energy singing. Opening with a trademark Miss Ross “OW!” – Diana sounds completely alive on this song, which offers a more complex melody line than any other song here (aside from “I’m Coming Out”), and thus gives her a lot to work with. The lyrics are sexy and playful (“I have not met a man yet, to escape from my dragnet…”), and Diana’s voice is full and forceful as she attacks the words; she also hits what might be one of the highest notes of her career during her ad-lib at 2:55. This is a great Diana Ross hidden gem, and a dynamite way to end one of her biggest-selling albums ever.
Note: For information on bonus tracks from this album, click HERE.
Although diana features two of Miss Ross’s biggest and most-loved hits and became her first platinum album, not everyone agrees that it’s one of her best. In his book Diana Ross: A Biography, J. Randy Taraborrelli writes, “The album’s success seems ironic in that it’s actually one of her least exciting or even interesting records. Most of her vocal performances are a bit mechanical” (330). I’d argue that the LP really is one of her most exciting; there’s an energy captured in several of the cuts that’s akin to the proverbial lightning in a bottle. “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down” are enduring hits for a reason – there’s a freshness to these cuts that still translates today, hence both records being used as samples by other artists.
It may be true that diana doesn’t vocally sound like other Diana Ross records, but Miss Ross has always been an artist who adapted her style to fit the material – not the other way around. Lady Sings The Blues sure didn’t sound like a “Diana Ross album” in 1972, but it went to #1. “Love Hangover” didn’t sound like a typical Diana Ross single, either, and it also hit the top of the charts. Her ability to fit her voice into the confines of the Rodgers and Edwards compositions so successfully is what makes her work here so impressive.
Final Analysis: 4.5/5 (Diana “Comes Out”)
Choice Cuts: “I’m Coming Out,” “Give Up,” “Upside Down”
The Grammy nominees for Best Female R&B Vocal Female Performance that year were:
Stephanie Mills, “Never Knew Love Like This Before” (Winner)
Roberta Flack, Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway
Aretha Franklin, “I Can’t Turn You Loose”
Minnie Riperton, Love Lives Forever
Diana Ross, “Upside Down”