Every Hot 100 Number-One Single: “Lately” (1998) – Divine

It’s always so amazing to me whenever I embark upon a song that, despite performing well commercially, seems to have been erased from collective memory by most everyone. I’m not even talking about “Disco Duck” or “Ice Ice Baby” or any of those other awful hit songs whose badness everyone tends to agrees upon after only a few years of desaturation. I’m talking about songs that are perfectly decent and successful upon release, yet would not be recognizable by most people through name alone. I guess “Angie Baby” sort of fits this definition, but only in relation to Helen Reddy’s other more synonymous hits.

It’s also really unusual when this occurs with a song that is relatively newish, as is the case with today’s song, “Lately” by the R&B girl group Divine. Just from one listen alone, it’s clear that Divine was hugely influenced by the urban adult contemporary genre that had been rising since the early 90s and found its commercial peak around the middle of the decade. Solo female artists like Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, and Brandy made their entire careers of the decade recording this genre, as did other girl groups like En Vogue, TLC, and SWV. Divine definitely fall more in the category of the latter, especially with the sleek sophisticated production and melodies of SWV.

Background information on this group is, unsurprisingly, ridiculously tough to find. They were made up of three teen girls named Kia Thornton, Nikki Bratcher and Tonia Tash who were signed to Red Ant Entertainment. The trio quickly shot to overnight success after recording “Lately”, which sprang up to the number-one spot just a few weeks after they had graduated from high school. After only a week at #1, though, this single lost its steam quickly – partially due to the new wave of young poppier talent around the corner, such as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Ricky Martin. The group attempted to retaliate by recording a cover of George Michael’s “One More Try” the following year; nonetheless, even though it was a top 40 hit, it failed to make much of an impact. By 2000, the group had broken up.

Divine is one of those groups who I had never even heard of before tracking down every Hot 100 number-one single, but now that I’ve listened to “Lately” a few times, I truly believe that they deserved much better. The song’s greatest attribute is definitely its chorus: “Lately, been thinkin’ ’bout you, baby / Just sittin’ away, watching the days go by”. It’s so simple, yet universal in its approach to heartache and the way that time seems to serve no purpose in times of sadness and loneliness. And yes, this is a heartbreak song sung by a group of teenagers, but its certainly performed very convincingly. Each of the girls gets their own shining moment and even though the verses aren’t quite as exceptional (the line, “If lovin’ you is right, then I don’t wanna go wrong” rings particularly clumsy to me), there’s always something present in the recording that makes it an overall pleasant listening experience. And, of course, each verse always leads back in to that splendid chorus, which is more than enough reason to spin this track over and over again.

Ultimately, it’s not hard to see why Divine never reached superstardom after the chart-topping success of “Lately”. As lovely and ear-catching as that chorus is, most of the song takes a lot of safe routes. I feel a lot of the arrangement and production decisions didn’t leave much room for the creativity and talent these ladies undeniably possess. Still, I really do feel like the song’s immediate success could be credited to that chorus alone, which just never, ever gets old. I’m sad that there’s little else under Divine’s belt that I can discover from here, but I hope that whatever endeavors these now-full-grown women have embarked on, they’re doing more than watching the days go by. Heaven knows they deserve it.

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