The group somehow limped ahead and began work on a second album, but when Coko suddenly got pregnant the whole thing stopped. "We were almost done when that happened," says Taj. "But she wasn't really able to travel and she gained a ton of weight. She was huge! Everything got pushed back as we waited for her to have the baby and then slim down. We lost some momentum."
SWV's second album, New Beginning, landed in stores in April of 1996, nearly four years after their debut. It featured the Top Five hit "You're The One" as well as some of the first-ever music by the Neptunes on second single "Use Your Heart," but it was also hobbled by poor decisions. Brian Alexander Morgan — the one behind all their hits — was brought in only at the last moment and given very few songs to write and produce, none of them singles. "That was a complete slap in the face to me," says Morgan. "I think it was a punishment because I made so much money from the first album. Also, there was so much negative energy in the studio. You could just feel it."
The girls were photographed wearing fur coats for the cover. "What the hell was with that?" says Morgan. "I mean, what the hell! This is when TLC had CrazySexyCool and they looked amazing with 'Waterfalls.' They took the condoms off their glasses and got really sexy, and SWV are in fur coats. Also, their videos, again, were just terrible."
SWV tried to rebound the following year with the appropriately named Release Some Tension, featuring guest spots by Puff Daddy, Foxy Brown, Redman, Timbaland, Lil' Kim, Snoop Dogg and many others. "I hated that album," says Lelee. "It was ridiculous, just poor judgment. I'm not taking anything away from the great artists. But I felt like the album was all of those great artists featuring SWV."
With an R&B scene now dominated by new acts like Brandy and Aaliyah, SWV seemed like dinosaurs. Release Some Tension sold poorly and the money dwindled to the point where Lelee was forced to quit the group she had started so she could stay home and take care of her children. "We did two shows where it was just me and Coko," says Taj. "Then after the second show, which was actually in St. Maarten, Coko quit. I was the only one left."
The three members of SWV barely spoke over the next few years, going off in three radically different directions. Taj married NFL great Eddie George and starred on the TV One reality series I Married A Baller. After getting over her deep depression, Lelee earned her GED and took a job at an Atlanta accounting firm and began piecing her life back together. Coko launched a moderately successful gospel career. "It was boring," she says. "I just never enjoyed being solo. Despite everything, I missed my girls."
Any sort of reunion seemed impossible until the very same force hit in 2005 that saved Mr. Big, Extreme and many other downtrodden groups over the years: a shocking groundswell of interest from Japanese fans. Lelee had just quit her desk job when she heard that Japanese promoters had put together an offer that was simply too big to turn down. Humbled by years out of the spotlight, Taj and Coko were able to put their egos aside for the sake of the group. SWV even carried on after the tour ended, sometimes on the same bill as other New Jack Swing acts like Blackstreet and Jodeci.
Meanwhile, Taj's husband Eddie George had retired and became a broadcaster for the Tennessee Titans. Money was no longer an issue for Taj, meaning she no longer relied on SWV to support herself. "That is such a relief," she says. "But I've never thrown that in their faces." The group also took plenty of breaks, allowing Coko to pursue outside projects like performing in a touring production of The Vagina Monologues in 2009. A couple of years before that, Taj found herself off a tiny island in Brazil filming the 18th season of Survivor. She came in fourth place, and never revealed her fame to the other contestants. "I was literally out there naked with nothing," she says. "It taught me I could get used to just about anything"
In 2011, they signed a deal with indie label Mass Appeal and released their long-delayed fourth album I Missed Us. It debuted at Number 25, but quickly sank down the charts due to virtually nonexistent promotion. It was a disappointment, but not long afterwards their then-manager, Cory Taylor, started pitching networks on a reality series about the group. "We're always looking for strong, bold, independent characters," says Lauren Gellert, SVP of Original Production & Development for WE TV. "We shot a pilot and the girls just popped. They were really funny, especially when we put the three of them together. We also realized there was so much unresolved stuff from their past they had to address."
Cameras followed them all over the world for six months, catching endless fights, makeups, health scares, therapy sessions and much more. Unlike The Real Housewives and other such shows about feuding middle-aged women, none of the drama came across as phony. "Everything is 100 percent real," says Taj. "The therapy scenes were 400 percent real, and they were the best thing to ever happen to us. It forced us to address our issues because we never sat down and talked about things that happened to us, ever."
Sitting in her dressing room with her husband and young sons shortly before showtime at MSG, Coko admits that she's less than thrilled with the show. She comes across as the villain in most episodes, frequently threatening to walk away from the group and getting into vicious battles with Taj over everything from her secret meetings with producers about reviving her gospel shows to canceling concerts with little notice to spend more time with her troubled son Jazz. "For me, these past few weeks since the show began airing have been terrible," she says. "If I could do it all over again, I'm not sure that I would. It's been awful. I really need to pray before I agree to a second season. I'm nervous to walk onstage now. I don't want people to boo me."
That doesn't happen. The concert begins with clips from SWV Reunited, and the audience explodes when the stars walk take the stage. During their 25-minute set opening for headliner Charlie Wilson, the sold-out crowd screams along to every word, nearly drowning out Coko's voice during "Weak." The three exit beaming.
A few days later, an energized Coko has some new thoughts about the reality show. "I guess every show needs a villain," she says, speaking over the phone. "And for this season, it's me. It comes with the territory. If there's a second season, I'll definitely be there."
The group has met with Sony about a new album, but they owe one more to Mass Appeal under the terms of their last contact. Claiming the group was never paid for I Missed Us, SWV's lawyers feel the contract is null and void and they're going to take the matter to court. Whatever the outcome, SWV are booking bigger shows than they have in years and ratings for SWV Reunited continue to rise. A second season hasn't been green lit yet, but odds seem high that it's gonna happen.
"We're growing," says Taj. "But we're three women with completely different personalities and we gel onstage. We still have our ups and downs. Hopefully, success won't pull us apart this time. But if it does, it'll make for a great second season."
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