Why Sade’s silent legacy is more relevant than ever
In terms of artists who reflect the publicity-shunning self-control of Sade, Drake isn’t the first name that springs to mind.
Whereas the British-Nigerian soul star has carefully maintained the secrecy of her personal life over several decades, Drake puts everything in public. So much so, we already know he bears two – yes, two – tattoos of his unlikely musical hero, inked on his torso. He even managed to break one of the musician’s regular vows of silence by posting a backstage photo with her back in March 2017. On his right stands one of his idols, and his left arm is wrapped around his mother, the photo captioned: “two very important ladies in my life.” Sade’s imprint on his life is so extensive, she’s practically family.
On paper, it’s a curious meeting of minds. Drake is all bravado, Stone Island jackets and handing out wads of cash to strangers in need. For all we know, Sade might pursue similar acts of charity, but she’d be the last person to make a show of it. Peer a little closer, however, and there are aspects of her career that carry a certain value in 2018, permeating pop, hip-hop, and the often-ignored pitfalls of fame.
It’s easy to forget that Sade remains one of the most successful, lucrative artists of the past four decades. She’s sold over 50 million records worldwide, with five of her six studio albums certified 3x Platinum in the United States. She looks poised to build on the legacy too, having released Flower of the Universe, her first track in seven years. Despite this, by all impressions she’s lived a relatively normal existence. In 2005 she moved to Stroud in the English countryside to renovate a cottage. Before then, she could be seen walking the streets of Islington like any unsuspecting member of the public. But this unbothered life, relatively free of celebrity, took years to construct, and it’s this which makes Sade something of a modern icon.
Her tight grip on control spans back to the early 1980s when, having been discovered at London jazz bar Ronnie Scott’s singing Smooth Operator with Pride, she insisted on Sade being a band, not a solo project. Pride’s other members – Start Matthewman, Andrew Hale and Paul Spencer Denman – would join her too, another stipulation. Right from the beginning, she made it clear that there would be no industry meddling, barely any alterations on the effortless, gloss-free authenticity her band displayed. Labels first treated her with scepticism, partly because the crisp analogue aesthetic of Smooth Operator didn’t fit with the age’s clamour for future-facing, electronic production. But those original recordings, first shunned by record companies, appeared exactly the same on 1984 LP Diamond Life.
As time has gone on, the need for an artist to assert themselves, instead of having their strings pulled by outsiders, has become paramount. And achieving that kind of independence remains a struggle. Frank Ocean spent millions buying himself out of his Def Jam record contract – building a staircase by hand, releasing a phantom album in Endless – as a means of regaining artistic control. One of 2017’s biggest pop breakthrough singles, Mabel’s Finder’s Keepers, emerged because the 22-year-old insisted on it being released. She told BBC 6 Music: “It was my decision to put it out. Everyone was like, ‘It’s very different to what you’ve done before.’ And it’s my most successful song.” Her quote is indicative of a wider problem: where female acts are told to try new directions and hit-chasing collaborations before seeing what sticks. Even Madonna, a star who’s earned every right to have complete artistic freedom, complained about being forced to go to “songwriting camps”.
Going back to someone like Frank Ocean, Sade also taught many of today’s current generation that secrecy has its benefits. The less you say or do, the more agitated fans are to hear more. In a time when it’s easier than ever to access snapshots of a musician’s life – via Snapchat, Instagram Stories, a round-robin of press interviews – the value of keeping schtum has grown exponentially.
This isn’t to say that Sade is the living embodiment of self-assertion. But there are few acts of her era, gender and genre who’ve given away so little. On a smaller scale, Aphex Twin has been given license to release whatever, whenever he wants. Portishead can go decades without releasing a record, yet festival headline slots and critical acclaim still remain. But how many artists can sell 50 million records while still keeping their sense of self in check?
In an early 90s televised interview with E!, Sade is repeatedly questioned about her love life, the qualities she admires in a man, and whether she has a “bulletproof soul.” She’s nothing less than cordial, but there’s a visible exhaustion in fielding personal questions, as if the subject matter of her songs is a window into her own heartbreak. Towards the end, interviewer Arthel Neville notes how uncomfortable she seems. “I sing about it, but I don’t talk about it so much,” is the brief and polite reply. Sade soon realised there was little point in doing press, particularly if it meant having the ins and outs of her personal life held under a microscope.
And yet unlike pop phenomena that comes and goes, Sade’s legacy has stayed perfectly intact. The grace of her smoothed-out, intimate sound can be heard in the music of Rhye and Jessie Ware. In fact, anything remotely laidback will draw inevitable comparisons to Sade’s sophisti-pop.
Her point-blank refusal to compromise, however, is the real sticking point. When labels wanted to meddle, when the press were thirsty for answers, and even when fans were begging for new material, she held firm. “She was one of those rare artists I fell completely in love with because she came just the way she is now,” Susan Blond, a former vice president at Epic, told the New York Times in 2017. She ignored fads, fashion, anything that might steer her off course. And that appears to be why she’s proven such a role model for Drake, Ocean, even Kanye West; creatively expressive artists also grappling with fame.