Nouveau CHIC: On ‘diana’ and ‘I’m Coming Out,’ from Diana Ross
Welcome to Songs and Albums CBG Loves, a column where we’ll discuss, life and time permitting, random songs and albums from the present or past, in long or short form. Look, there’s no real plan here because sometimes you just gotta say fuck it and wing it. (The column’s name, which we’re still workshopping, is proof of this.) We can’t promise that we’ll drop a new instalment on a specific day or on a specific week, or even that there won’t be overlap with some weeks or months looking at many posts, but we’re confident we can get this done somehow and write about music regularly. After starting this series with the greatest rapper of all time, we’re, erm, switching gears to disco.
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CBG is always giving love instinctively.
1. What? It ain’t no more to it.
The voice you hear is that of a rapper, The Notorious B.I.G. (him again, yes) at the end of a little interlude on his sophomore album, interlude that is then followed by a few seconds of dead air. It’s just as well: what follows is just seismic.
The next song of that album is Mo Money Mo Problems, which you’ll understand later as maybe the defining “shiny suit” anthem of its era, and which starts with a literal bang, as if we’re transported into a world with nothing but lively vocal samples that drop out of nowhere while coming in and out of focus to belt out things like “I’m Coming” (in the case of this specific song). The sample is from Diana Ross but when you first hear the song, you have no clue. You’re just a French Canadian caucasian male barely into his teens then. You have no clue about Ross or The Supremes, your parents taught you about Celine Dion more than they did, say, Marvin Gaye or Gil Scott-Heron, that all comes later.
The Biggie song has a dang glorious guitar too, which is part of the Diana Ross sample you’ll learn later, a guitar that’s sort of staccato to the point that it feels jittery. The guitar is from Nile Rodgers, because no one but Nile Rodgers could make a guitar riff beam so brightly. Paired with the vocal sample that arrives with no warning as some sort of precursor to the “chipmunk soul” that would be all the rage in rap only a couple of years later, the beat works as pure joy, it wraps you in its arms and warms the little coddles of your heart, as Mase, then Diddy (then known as Puff Daddy), and finally the incomparable Biggie trade barbs.
But if all you pay attention to is that Biggie song, then you’ll miss the most glorious part of the original song. You’ll miss the horns, man.
2. We’ll get there but first, a little disclaimer: disco? We’re talking about disco? We’re following a post about the greatest rapper of all time with one on an 80s album, a classic but still. Is this MFer serious? Dear reader, we’re here to say that yes we are indeed dead serious. Buckle up and unlock those hips, it’s gonna be fun.
3. By 1980, Diana Ross had it made. By whatever metric you want to look at it, Ross was very much an entire big deal in an industry full of them, perhaps the biggest big deal singer of big deal singers. She had moved from an insanely prolific-slash-genius-slash-influential-slash-we’re-running-out-of-adjectives run as the lead singer of The Supremes, who were the actual most successful act of Motown and who were basically neck and neck with The Beatles by the end of their run. They had scored a dozen №1 singles and sold more than a handful dozens of millions of albums between 1959 and 1977.
By the mid 1970s, Ross had embarked on a solo run and immediately scored hit after hit. She had made movies too, even hosting the 1974 Academy Awards, but then had hit a little bit of a lull in the second half of the 1970s. Albums Baby It’s Me and Ross did fine, but nothing more. And anyway, Ross wasn’t in the fine business.
Whichever way you cut it, Ross was a star twice over by the end of the 1970s decade. This much was clear. Less clear was where her next hit would come from. Her last №1 hit, which is of course an insane and unjust way of judging artists but we’re working with what we have here, had come four years earlier. Was it preposterous to say that someone like Ross, with her career and standing, needed a hit in 1980? Probably, but there’s some truth to it.
4. Can an album that made it to №1, sold roughly 10 millions worldwide copies despite no lead single, and which Rolling Stone eventually hailed as the 394th best album of all time, can such an album be overrated? We say yes, because it’s not the CHIC mix of diana that folks first got to hear — but we’ll get to that too.
Looking for a fresher sound and wanting to kickstart the next phase of her career, Ross went to the Studio 54 well and picked from the best of the best. By then, CHIC was spearheaded by guitarist Nile Rodgers, whom you likely know, and bassist Bernard Edwards, whom you likely don’t know. Rodgers and Edwards met with Ross many times in her apartment and, intent on not misrepresenting someone who was on Rodgers’s Mount Rushmore of dream collaborations, discussed the singer’s career and life, approaching songwriting as something like a documentary. With this new album, Ross would overhaul her career up to this point (e.g. Upside Down), jumpstart her new life and career after a divorce (e.g. Have Fun (Again)), or merely enjoy her time alone (e.g. My Old Piano).
If that was the plan, well mission accomplished. Together, they created a body of work that would reverberate across genres and years. diana is a disco album where the singer’s voice doesn’t take (quite as major) a backseat to the melodies.
5. But that wasn’t all apparent. When Ross brought the songs and album to her label, they cautioned her that maybe the risk was too big. That maybe she had played her hand too aggressively and that the new style could hinder more than helped her career. That maybe she ought to reign things in.
That’s what Ross did. The label redid the final mixes for diana and eschewed mostly everything that was CHIC about it. The songs were shorter in many cases and, in all cases, not nearly as rich and alive in their final mixes.
Upon hearing the final product, Rodgers and Edwards tried to distance themselves from a body of work that didn’t represent the work that they had all put together. CHIC controversy notwithstanding, diana would chart and perform excessively well to become the best-selling album of Ross’s career. It would only be until the turn of the century, when the album was re-released with a deluxe edition, that folks could hear the difference between the CHIC mixes and the original release. And here, dear reader, we can’t be clear enough: please for the love of all that is disco, listen to the CHIC mixes on diana.
6. The thing about I’m Coming Out is that while the song might start off with a nice guitar riff, it’s the horns man. Diana’s voice has that melodic cool, this warm and echo aura — angelic almost — as she teases out the chorus. The guitar riff keeps going, even as the cascading drums jump on, but before long the horns take over. They’re horns from producer Meco Monardo apparently but wherever they come from, we wish to never leave this place. The trombone doesn’t play so much as it transforms every surface it touches. You know that scene in movies where things turn from doom and gloom to beaming sunshine? Where when a curse is lifted in a city, we’ll see the shadows progressively turn to light and sunshine? That’s what the horns feel like. Like they’re looking at you dancing and smiling as you listen to the song. And they’re smiling back.
7. This is how the song echoed for us all those years after its formal release: as the vocal sample to another single from the best rapper of all time. And look, it’s not entirely our fault, we’re a white Caucasian man in our thirties, which means that the original song was released a full five years before our birth. Of course, we would hear of I’m Coming Out first as the sample to the great rap song we heard at 12 years old. And of course this was all this song was for us for a long while: because let’s just say that in our teens, we were most likely to dig through the latest Memphis Bleek tape than one of the remaining disco limelights of the 1980s.
But at the time of its release, I’m Coming Out resonated with plenty of folks. In fact, unbeknownst to the singer, the song that would peak at №5 on the Billboard Hot 100 became one of the defining LBGTQ anthems. Rodgers and Edwards apparently wrote the lyrics after seeing drag queens on a night out and, well, let’s just let the song lyrics take over here. “I’m coming out. I want the world to know, got to let it show. I’m coming out, I want the world to know. I got to let it show” goes the chorus. Before the end of the song, everyone has joined in on singing the words of the chorus. If it feels boisterous and triumphant, it’s because that’s what the song is.
It’s a sentiment that everyone can relate to but at a time when LGBTQ folks were — and regrettably, still are to this day — needing to sublimate the person that they are the moment they stepped into society, I’m Coming Out was something like a godsend. Everyone should have always been able to show the world their true selves and, now, those who had never had the chance to had a song that wink-wink, nudge-nudge told them all it would work out. And that they should show the rest of us just how bright they shined every day.
8. In many ways, diana works as something like a final gasp of relevancy for disco — well okay, maybe that’s a little harsh…diana is something like a final (ish) turn in the spotlight for the genre? Label, remixing and mastering drama aside, the album went on to be certified diamond with 10+ millions copies sold, spanned the №1 single Upside Down and another one that made it in the top 10, and made it to №2 on the Billboard 200 chart while topping the Billboard R&B/Dance chart for 17 weeks. diana was a phenomenon in very much the same way that Diana Ross always was.
If nothing else, this album proved one thing above all: that disco still ruled then, and that it still rules now.