The Impact of Lenny Kravitz’s ‘5’ 25 Years Later

Lenny Kravitz has been an icon in the rock scene for decades. No work solidified that status for him quite like ‘5‘. Released on May 12, 1998, the album was aptly but simply titled—it was, after all, the singer’s fifth album. It followed on the heels of his 1995 release ‘Circus‘, which was less commercially successful than its two predecessors.

By 1998, it would have been easy to cast Lenny Kravitz off. It’s already a huge accomplishment to have a string of successful albums (in particular 1991’s ‘Mama Said‘, and 1993’s ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way‘). But in a world where popular rock ‘n’ roll acts of the early ‘90s were being pushed aside in favor of younger pop artists like Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears come the latter half of the decade, it wouldn’t be unheard of for Kravitz to experience the same fate.

And at first, that seemed like the case. Its commercial success was slow, and that’s not all. The critics were lukewarm initially, giving it average ratings and often disparaging reviews. Writing for AllMusic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine critiqued ‘5‘, saying that some songs were “passable… yet it falls short of the quirky hero worship and melodic smarts that made his first three records so enjoyable.” This was despite incredible and unique singles like ‘If You Can’t Say No‘ and ‘I Belong To You‘. These tracks combined electronica, funk, pop, and blues in a mind-melting way that Lenny Kravitz devotees were bound to enjoy.

But it didn’t take 25 years for the tide to change. In fact, it only took a few months. By the second half of 1998, ‘5‘ finally managed to pick up some steam. This was most likely due to the release of “Fly Away’. It peaked at number 12 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and also topped the Mainstream Rock chart, as well as the UK Singles Chart. By the end of the year, you couldn’t not know the song. It even featured in a commercial for the Peugeot 206 Supermini car in the UK. All of this is an incredible feat, considering the track almost didn’t end up on the album at all.

The song’s funky alternative groove couldn’t be denied, made possible by a powerful yet free-spirited riff. Perhaps if Kravitz and his team had led with this single, the initial reception to ‘5‘ would have been warmer. However, just like with all things, it’s near impossible to know. What we do know is that its release earned him a Grammy Award in 1999 for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, something he would win three more times consecutively.

The renewed appreciation of Kravitz and his fifth album brought about a re-release in 1999. This included a bonus track that has become synonymous with the artist: ‘American Woman‘. It’s a cover of The Guess Who’s 1970 classic and a song that was also prominently featured in Austin Powers: The Spy Who S*****d Me. The film, a box office hit, may have even opened up the artist to a bigger audience.

This boost from the comedy movie allowed people to listen to the LP with new ears. It’s obvious on the album, that he was experimenting. While audiences in early 1998 were not prepared for it, the listeners of 1999 were more receptive to the artist’s new technique. The production and its resulting sound were different from Kravitz’s usual style. As the new millennium dawned, he began working with things like synthesizers and tap loops for a more modern touch, drawing inspiration from ‘70s funk and soul.

The lasting success of ‘5‘ has not only cemented Kravitz as a bonafide superstar but up there with the likes of Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield. But, it has also shown the lasting importance of challenging yourself as an artist. Lenny Kravitz took a leap of faith by working with digital technology on this album, and, in the end, it paid off. This is a lesson for all musical artists out there to take on board.

What’s your favorite song from 5? Drop a comment and let us know! You can find Lenny Kravitz on Instagram and Twitter.

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