From the Mint Factory – Mint Condition (1993)

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From the Mint Factory CD cover

I have heard it said that R&B died sometime in the mid ’90s. I don’t know if I agree with that statement, but one thing is clear: vocal talent seemed more important than production back then. For instance, one of the last great modern R&B movements, New Jack Swing was the last time R&B really focused on the quality of vocals in a popular mass movement.

Sure hip hop was just around the corner and had already infiltrated mainstream R&B, but there were moments in the new Jack Swing movement where R&B was at it’s finest. One of those high points was the Minneapolis based Mint Condition. Despite being discovered by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, they came out the gate swinging with a sound more comparable to Toni Toni Tone than Prince (although there was a strong Jam/Lewis imprint).

By their second album, they had evolved their sound into a sophisticated blend of crooning soul and street smart beats. More bedroom than brawler, From the Mint Factory might be best known for slick retro vibe of “U Send Me Swingin”. The song features vocalist Stokley Williams soaring voice almost to the point of breaking glass. The song nearly reach the top of the Billboard R&B Chart while cracking the mainstream Top 40.

The lush Jam and Lewis production was reminiscent of Take 6 or Stevie Wonder at times. Simple arrangements with conventional drum, bass and keyboards clearly took a back seat to multiple harmonies lead by Stokely. Mint Condition had established themselves as the more adult alternative to groups like Guy, who’s high energy soul took a more street persona.

From the Mint Factory was just one of many high points in a discography marked by consistently strong albums. You might argue that the strength and consistency of this album made no one song stand out (although I might have to disagree after hearing “U Send Me Swingin”). That’s a good problem that many artists in today’s singles driven environment wish they had.

Like a lot of early ’90s R&B, Mint Condition’s impact is much greater if you hear them as oppose to seeing them (music videos). If you can get past the funny looking baggy clothes and other ’90s-isims From the Mint Factory stacks up well against some of the era’s new vocal-centric breakouts like The Rude Boys and Johnny Gill.

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