Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
'Pronounced Jah-Nay' At 25: Zhané's Renée Neufville & Jean Norris Look Back On Their Classic R&B Debut
25 years ago this month, Renée Neufville and Jean Norris released Pronounced Jah-Nay, an R&B masterpiece and timeless body of work rooted in jazz, blues, hip-hop, soul and love. Yes, love. A love of music, artistry, words and self. The certified-platinum album was both futuristic and vintage in its versatility, astonishing vocal range, composition and overall musicianship, easily making it a cornerstone of what would soon emerge as neo-soul.
In 1994, R&B groups were a dime a dozen. A new duo or group popped up often, promising to leave an imprint on our souls or make us dance, at the very least. It was difficult to differentiate one from another and then there was Zhané, whose French name is a combination of "Jean" and "Renée" but with a "Z" added for color.
"It wasn’t our intention to create a timeless classic album," says Renée, who wrote much of the album including "Sending My Love" and "Changes."
"Stylistically, I love the classics, and I thought it was wise to not chase the trend, but keep the direction of the songwriting neutral so it wouldn’t swing too left or too right."
While the music was neutral, their look was anything but. Two beautiful young women, one whose skin had darker hues, the other light. One tall, the other petite. The glaring differences created a gorgeous balance for the two students who had met at Temple University. Their sultry sound coupled with their unique look grabbed the attention of many including Kay Gee, DJ and member of the GRAMMY Award-winning hip-hop group Naughty by Nature. This relationship led to Zhané's first hit single, "Hey Mr. D.J.," which was released on Roll Wit tha Flava, a compilation album from Queen Latifah's Flavor Unit Records.
The certified-gold single married New Jersey hip-hop to Philly soul. "The song was refreshing," says Jean. "It was feel good music with a coming-of-age sound." That powerhouse-groove track helped Zhané negotiate a record deal, ultimately landing at Motown. "We had already proven that we could make a hit song," says Jean.
Zhané didn't just create one hit song; the 13-track album was full of magic. Pronounced Jah-Nay garnered three certified hits, “Hey Mr. D.J.," "Groove Thang" and "Sending My Love.” Executive produced by Zhané and Kay Gee, the album hit a cultural chord, creating a space for young fans to not just dance but reflect, grow, love and contemplate. It was "grown folk" music for the young and young at heart. "Kay Gee helped provide the edge we needed to appeal to a younger audience without us sounding too mature," Renée told us. "I was very grateful to him for that."
While the songs that hit radio waves were well-received classics ("Sending My Love" is the most licensed song from the album), the B-side tracks were arguably the strongest. Songs like "La, La, La," "Sweet Taste of Love," "Off My Mind," and "For A Reason" were masterpieces—complete with perfect riffs, harmonies, notes, range, lyrical composition and a teaspoon of pain.
It is remarkable that the then-20-somethings created a classic R&B album with such poignant lyrics. Renée says they pulled from their own experiences when writing. "'Sending My Love' was personal. It was about my first love and what I was going through at the time,” she says. "[The songs] "'Changes' and 'Love Me Today' were about that same guy."
And that is what makes a classic piece of work: The authenticity, human emotions and shared experiences that connects us all. Lyrics that go deep, feelings that run the gamut, melodies that reach heaven and passion that is unmeasurable is what defines timeless music. "There are younger people discovering our music and creating remixes," says Jean. "Jaguar out of Philly reached out to me recently and told me a young artist in France rhymed over 'Sending My Love,' so the music continues to live on, which is an honor."
That same love allows Zhané to sing their music even today. "I still love every song,” Renée says. "I will never grow tired of them. How can you be tired of the gifts God gave you?"
Jean and Renée have given fans several gifts since Pronounced Jah-Nay, including the duo’s sophomore project, Saturday Night in 1997. Both artists have gone on to record and release music, Jean with her husband Marcus (they received a GRAMMY nomination in 2018 for Best Jazz Vocal Album and Best Traditional R&B Performance) and Renée as a solo artist and collaborator.
But will they ever sing together again? It might not happen anytime soon. "There are no hard plans right now," says Jean. "But I think it's something that needs to happen at some point."