There’s probably never been an episode more true to its title than Unsung for Xscape. Despite three platinum albums fueled by countless chart-toppers, the Atlanta girl group never garnered the mainstream success it should have, and this Unsung episode explores the many reasons why.
While it’s quite doubtful that those 30 and under even know who Xscape is, in the 1990s, the group made a big statement. Sisters LaTocha and Tamika Scott and friends Kandi Burruss and Tameka “Tiny” Cottle—the latter two are more well-known today, respectively, as a cast member of The Real Housewives of Atlanta and rapper T.I.’s wife—were hometown girls who made it with a hometown label in Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def. Their story was a ’90s version of the Supremes, with Atlanta subbing for Detroit.
They burst onto the scene with such hits as “Just Kickin’ It” and “Understanding” from their 1993 debut album, Hummin’ Comin’ at ’Cha, just as Atlanta, powered by L.A. Reid’s and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds’ LaFace Records, was on the rise as a bona fide music mecca, an alternative to Los Angeles and New York City for R&B music.
Still in high school, the four young women went for it and made it. But like many things in the music industry, it also fell apart.
Since all four members—along with parents, managers (past and present), ex-group members, Jermaine Dupri, T.I. and others—chime in, Unsung seems to have covered all the bases, with everyone having his or her say. And what a say it is. Talk about the good, the bad and the ugly; it’s all here. The good: being friends and going on an incredible fairy-tale journey together. The bad: reaching the top and having a sisterhood unravel because of grander ambitions and great misunderstandings. And the ugly: never, ever being able to go back to the way it was.
When it was good, the women of Xscape represented for the “around the way” girls, proving that friendship and like-minded ambition could take young women to the top. By today’s standards, the notion that the industry back then was highly sexualized is laughable. But the decision for the young women to dress in baggy hip-hop clothes, which also distinguished TLC and later Aaliyah, proved wise because it allowed Xscape to become known for their voices. Their vibe was very much hood wholesome. “Just Kickin’ It” and “Understanding” definitely set the tone for their style, and their 1995 remake of the Jones Girls’ 1979 “Who Can I Run To” from their sophomore effort Off the Hook continued it.
As they reached higher heights, the unraveling began. Tamika Scott’s pregnancy almost ended the group in dramatic fashion, and even though they got past it, other obstacles appeared. A lot of the trouble involved men. Whether it was a boyfriend trying to manage them or an ill-advised sexual hookup, being young women in the music industry was extremely challenging. There were fistfights, ambitions to go solo and other kinds of drama. In short, the Xscape story isn’t only an Unsung installment but a Lifetime movie waiting to happen.
Sadly, the four women are no longer friends, and even worse, they are not even associates. It’s so bad that they couldn’t even come together to celebrate a significant milestone that literally put them in the game and changed their lives. No, it’s not news that girl groups don’t make it. Most groups don’t, actually. So in that respect, Xscape is no different. What should make Xscape fans and average viewers the saddest, however, is that these young women had a chance to do it differently and didn’t.
Editor’s note: Unsung: Xscape airs on TV One Wednesday, July 8, at 8 p.m.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.