There is no shortage of rap game greatness from the year 1991.
It's the year A Tribe Called Quest dropped their masterful sophomore album The Low End Theory. Ice Cube also gave us a stellar second outing with the incendiary Death Certificate; and De La Soul recalibrated their musical destiny by declaring De La Soul Is Dead. Cube's ex-bandmates in N.W.A. cemented their status as the most controversial act in music with Niggaz4Life, and his cousin Del hit a homerun for quirky alt-rap with I Wish My Brother George Was Here. There are lots of all-timers in the rap album Class of 1991.
But MC Lyte's third album sits there quietly alongside all of these highly-acclaimed projects. Act Like You Know doesn't often get lauded as an all-time great Hip-Hop album; it's not always placed on the lofty tiers with a Low End Theory or a Breaking Atoms. And it doesn't have the historical significance of her 1988 debut: Lyte As a Rock was the first album by a solo female rapper. And 1989's Eyes On This proved Lyte was no fluke: it produced "Cha Cha Cha" and "Cappuccino," two songs that further affirmed Lyte's status.
At the dawn of the 1990s, Act Like You Know was MC Lyte's first major attempt at mainstream or "crossover" success. Three albums in, it was time for Lyte to grab that bigger audience, and when one listens to Act Like You Know and examines the album's singles, it's hard to figure out why it didn't go over bigger 30 years ago.
In the mid-1980s, MC Lyte had broken through New York's rap scene as a brash teenager out of Brooklyn; before closing the decade with two albums that cemented her as the preeminent female rhymer in Hip-Hop. At the dawn of the Yo! MTV Rap's era and Hip-Hop's so-called "Golden Age," and even with Salt-N-Pepa's commercial wins and Queen Latifah's star rising, MC Lyte was the gold standard.
But she hadn't had a gold-selling album.
“First you come into the game and you have no expectations," Lyte would tell VIBE in 2011. "You just want the microphone to say what you want to say. But before long the pressure is on to actually sell records. Once you have that pressure on you, you have to come up with new and inventive ways to get there."
She'd glimpsed chart success at the tail end of 1989, when "I'm Not Havin' It," her duet with Positive K, hit No. 16 on the Rap Charts; and even moreso with her single "Cha Cha Cha." That Fearless Four-referencing hit topped the Rap Charts that December—but Lyte hadn't cracked the Billboard Hot 100. R&B still dominated urban radio, and MC Lyte hadn't had a single that broke big with that audience.
New jack swing had taken over urban radio, so it's understandable that many rappers believed it was the key to crossover airplay.
Uptown Records was starting to see major success with new jack swing acts on both sides of the Hip-Hop and R&B divide. Bronx rapper Father MC charted big in 1990 with new jack swing hits "I'll Do 4 U" and "Treat Them Like They Wanna Be Treated" that featured then-unknown R&B singers Mary J. Blige and Jodeci, respectively. And Heavy D, who'd worked heavily with new jack icon Teddy Riley, was a prime example of a rapper who'd enjoyed tremendous success working in the style. But for the most part, new jack swing had often proven more fertile territory for R&B singers than Hip-Hop artists. Act Like You Know's first single was the new jack swing-driven "When In Love."
"...Love" was produced by Wolf & Epic and featured Lyte musing on how foolish love can make people behave. It was an infectious single and ready-made for the radio; the song made it to the No. 3 spot on the Rap Chart. It let fans know the direction that MC Lyte was going in this time around.
Musically, Lyte was inspired by R&B trio Bell Biv Devoe. BBD's success had come from the erstwhile New Edition refugees blending Hip-Hop and R&B with dance in a heady mix they'd described as "Hip-Hop smoothed out on the R&B tip with a pop feel to it." Lyte recruited BBD's producers, Wolf & Epic, to work on her new project.
Mark "The 45 King" had done the bulk of the production on Queen Latifah's critically-acclaimed 1989 debut All Hail the Queen. On Act Like You Know, The 45 King gave Lyte some of the album's more street-oriented, hardcore Hip-Hop tracks; from the aggression of "Kamikaze" to one of her most comedic story raps, "Absolutely, Positively...Practical Jokes."
Lyte's mainstays Audio Two are on-hand for two tracks: "All That" with Dana Eaves and the stellar "Lola From the Copa," which features Lyte in storyteller mode once again, recounting a dark sexual encounter between the titular Lola and a man named "Zeke The Freak." For all of Act Like You Know's R&B affectations, Lyte still keeps the lengthy running time filled with unfettered street tracks that showcase her skills.
But the album's new jack presentation was undeniable. Even the music video for "When In Love" was a departure for MC Lyte. Up until that point, she'd mostly presented as a tough b-girl from around-the-way in her videos, but this time, there was choreography and romantic themes. There was a lot more pastel colors and smiling for the camera, and to a lot of the rap audience, this was a whole new Lyte.
"When I was dancing in my video for ‘When In Love,’ I was just ready to try something different," Lyte recalled to VIBE in 2011. "I wasn’t really concerned about any backlash. I did what I wanted to do."
On album standout "Poor Georgie," Lyte tells the story of George, an alcoholic womanizer. It's a spiritual sequel of sorts to her first single "Cram 2 Understand U," where a teenaged Lyte rapped about having a crack addicted boyfriend, Sam. But where "...Cram" was bare-bones boom bap, "Poor Georgie" is a much slicker affair. Over a sample of Toto's 70s hit "Georgy Porgy," Lyte spins the tale of the dapper-but-doomed George, and the track remains one of her most affecting songs.
Upon release, Act Like You Know polarized critics. James Bernard of Entertainment Weekly was praising of the album's messaging, particularly on "Eyes Are the Soul."
"Rather than tossing around empty rhetoric, Lyte takes us face-to-face with these people," he wrote in 1991. "Forcing us to look into their eyes."
"Eighteen well-written songs, a mixture of deliveries, and fresh beats and samples give her a rough, tough and psychedelic symmetry," wrote Gil Griffin of The Washington Post. "Lyte articulately tackles serious topics such as AIDS, drug abuse, abortion, drunk driving and obsessive love..."
Michael Small of People lamented that Lyte's musical forays into R&B and dance wound up "...pleasing no one" and that while she remained a “great storyteller,” this album's sound put her in a “confusing middle ground.”
"Eyes Are the Soul" was the album's third single and was the most probing and empathetic song Lyte had released up to that point.
The sobering video featured among the cast a young Gary Dourdan, who was also appearing on NBC's hit sitcom A Different World at the time, and a stone-faced Lyte shared stories of addiction, abuse and neglect. "...Soul" was evidence of Lyte's maturing social perspective, and Wolf & Epic's production was club-leaning, but appropriately downbeat.
"What I'm trying to do," a 20-year old Lyte explained to Rap Express in 1991, "is create music and lyrics that people can relate to, something that people can identify with, that the around-the-way girl can say 'that happened to me,' 'that happened to my friend,' 'my cousin's going through that—oohh, I won't let that happen to me!'"
Her third album saw MC Lyte pushing past the boom-bap of her 80s sound into new jack swing and dance music, while deepening the scope of her storytelling and sharpening her message.
"Poor Georgie" peaked at No. 1 on Billboard's Rap Chart in March 1992. A young Lauryn Hill appeared in the popular music video, which became a fixture on shows like Rap City and Yo! MTV Raps. The success of the single didn't necessarily push Act Like You Know into the upper reaches commercially, but it did highlight how well MC Lyte could shift her sound without sounding like she was trying too hard.
Act Like You Know is the sound of an artist in flux, but also represents an artist unafraid to push themselves out of any box. MC Lyte wanted to expand her sound and she did so successfully. It's ironic that it would be her most hardcore single (1993's "Ruffneck" from her next album Ain't No Other) that would become her biggest pop hit at the time, peaking at No. 35 on the Billboard Top 20. Many critics saw that album's grittier sound as a reaction to criticisms she'd gotten for going new jack swing-heavy on Act Like You Know. Lyte's latter forays into such slick territory, via mid-90s hits like Brandy's "I Wanna Be Down" remix and Lyte's smash "Cold Rock A Party," would be more seamless and successful. Nonetheless, it was singles like "When In Love" and "Eyes Are the Soul" that highlighted just how much the girl from Brooklyn had grown as an artist and set the stage for the commercial successes she'd enjoy later in the decade.