Classic Albums: Blacks' Magic by Salt-N-Pepa
By Stereo Williams
On their third album, Salt-N-Pepa decided to up the ante. And, especially in the case of Salt, they decided to take creative control. Having split from her boyfriend, Salt-N-Pepa producer Hurby "Luv Bug" Azor, Salt decided she wanted to control the voice of the album herself. Pepa followed suit, and the result was Salt-N-Pepa's best album. Blacks' Magic finds the group finding itself, with a distinct voice all their own and those ever-present catchy hooks still intact.
“Our relationship was starting to go left in a really, really tumultuous way," Salt told RTB in 2020. "Not only creative independence, I was looking for personal independence from being Hurby’s girlfriend. When there was an opportunity to make another album and start fresh, I was like, ‘I’m gonna try to do something on my own.’ And ‘Expression’ wound up being a platinum single, the first song I did by myself.”
Though it's rarely cited as such, "Expression" could make a case for one of the greatest Hip-Hop opening tracks of all time. R&B singer Jacci McGee (arguably best known for Keith Sweat's "Make It Last Forever,") handles the hook, with Salt producing the track herself.
"Nautilus" by Bob James is the foundation for "Doper Than Dope," with Hurby "Luv Bug" channeling the source in the same way RZA would later on with Ghostface's "Daytona 500."
"Negro Wit' an Ego" continues what is a very strong opening salvo for the album. A topical track that features the ladies declaring their position but also dismissing any idea that a Black woman speaking her mind is a threat to anything except racism and sexism. And "You Showed Me" continued the group's (and Hurby's) love affair with 60s rock—which still loomed large over the late 1980s, early 1990s. Here, SNP updated an old hit by The Turtles.
"Swift" continues a staple of golden age rap albums: tracks where emcees just like to showcase wordplay. Another solo Salt showcase, the rapper gets to flex her verbal skills here: "The ebony queens are back on the scene, I assume you still suck like a vacuum machine!" "The furious females you gotta fuck with!" "The star of every male's fantasy or wet dream!"
One of the group's more underrated cuts, the title track ties the themes together and explains the album title. Spin gets a production shout-out as Salt really digs in on the verses, which are about the greatness of Blackness. The connection between music and mysticism is emphasized and the song is one of the clearest examples of how much the group had grown as artists. Salt breaks down the racism of "black" as a pejorative.
In what almost feels almost like a throwback track, "Start the Party" is a song on the album that sounds most like the kind of songs they'd made throughout the 1980s. While hit single "Let's Talk About Sex" was inescapable in the early 1990s.
Released as a single until towards the end of Blacks' Magic's run, it hit airwaves around the time of Magic Johnson's HIV announcement. The group remixed the track several times, and dropped "Let's Talk About AIDS" soon after. "...Sex" is one of the most played songs of the early 1990s and a pop culture moment.
Kid 'n Play show up on the track "I Don't Know," and the two groups have great chemistry. The two biggest acts amongst Hurby's Idol Makers collective get to show some crew love--over a great track where Spin rhymes a bit and she gets to trade bars with Kid. "Live and Let Die" flips Earth, Wind & Fire's "Shining Star" as Salt, Pep and Spin again all make themselves heard on a song about not wasting your breath trying to change peoples' minds when you can just focus on getting them the hell outta your way.
"Independent" was the album's final single, and not as successful as hits like "Let's Talk About Sex" or "Expression," but one that sounded like a track that could've been inspired by Salt's relationship with Hurby ending. R&B star Sybil guests on the hook, which, with its message of liberation, is tied to the theme and spirit of the album.
“[We were] coming into our own and taking on social issues out there,” Pepa said in 2020 of the group’s early ’90s evolution. “That was the time of AIDS and trying to raise awareness. ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ [and] one of my favorites ‘You Showed Me’ — songs like that were us coming into our own and [finding] out what we stood for. That was having a voice, different [from] early on. Hurby was involved with the music, of course. But we were still able to express ourselves and who we were.”
Blacks Magic would be released in March 1990, and the album would remain on the charts and airwaves for more than a year and a half. Singles and music videos like "Let's Talk About Sex" and "Expression" became regular fixtures on MTV and BET, as any perception of Salt-N-Pepa as novelty act was washed away by their commercial and critical triumph.
For Salt, in particular, Blacks' Magic was affirmation that Salt-N-Pepa was not merely the creation and brainchild of a svengali; she and Pepa may have began as novices all those years ago when her former boyfriend asked her to recruit her friend for his rap idea. But now, they were seasoned pros, and they knew how to make hit records. They would parlay their confidence into their next project, 1993s Very Necessary. That album would become Salt-N-Pepa's best seller; a blockbuster record that completed the group's evolution from 80s round-the-way upstarts to 90s chart-toppers.
But it's Blacks Magic that stands as their greatest musical statement. It's an album that has been overshadowed by so many other classics, but it's a polished and purposeful collection of pop-friendly rap songs that prove that combination doesn't have to illicit groans and eye-rolls. Salt-N-Pepa were always hitmakers of the highest order. With Blacks' Magic, they made it clear that they had something to say. And something to prove.
“Initially, I don’t think [Hurby] took me seriously,” Salt said in 2020. “He was like, ‘Yeah, right, g’head, I’d like to see you try.’"