For black pop music, this is an exhilarating, unsettling time. Never before have so many black performers been so successful in the world of mainstream pop. Not only have such sure bets as Lionel Richie and Whitney Houston scored big, but there have also been breakthroughs by such wild cards as Run-D.M.C., Sade and Anita Baker — acts that would have had difficulty cracking even the black Top Ten a few years back. The pop charts may be hype heaven, but for many black acts, they’re the promised land. After Thriller and Purple Rain, making the journey to pop stardom has been easier, and the rewards (ask Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson) have gone through the roof. But when black artists trim their sound to catch the prevailing wind and sail off for the mainstream without a backward glance, they leave behind a residue of distrust and anger.
Still, the dangers of crossing over seem insignificant when black music is as healthy and vigorous as it is right now. With a resurgent rap on one side and a sophisticated neoclassicism on the other, black music is in fertile flux, a period both revolutionary and revisionist, hurtling forward and looking back. Critic Nelson George calls the neoclassic genre — embodied in Anita Baker and Sade — retro nuevo, a rediscovery of the richness of soul vocal styling. Not incidentally, that rediscovery has provided some artists with the means to cross over. Retro nuevo isn’t exactly going back to the roots (though the label might be stretched to fit Robert Cray), but it indulges nostalgia for stylized, well-crafted vocals in a modern, unironic, often lushly emotional mood.
For many black male vocalists, drawing on the past is nothing new. R&B vocals still echo the soothing, rocking sound of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and the young Ray Charles. Recently this tradition has been battered by the no-romance stance of rap, but it’s alive and kicking in the work of Billy Ocean, Teddy Pendergrass, Jeffrey Osborne, Howard Hewett, Glenn Jones, El DeBarge and the three men whose albums are reviewed here.
Luther Vandross, one of the reigning neoclassicists, is a master of the mood of pure pop romanticism that’s at the heart of contemporary soul. Part crooner, part diva — drawing on Johnny Mathis and Lou Rawls but inspired by Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross — Vandross delivers love songs in a manner that’s both cool and hot, both delicate and robust. Onstage, he sometimes indulges in a dramatic theatricality that, taken to the extreme, chokes on its own self-satisfied technique. But he tempers his Star Search overkill on his albums, which resonate with a sense of passionate restraint.
Producing and writing the bulk of his material (on Give Me the Reason, he worked with studio vet Marcus Miller, a frequent collaborator), Vandross places himself in a serene emotional midrange, from which he soars to expressive peaks. The effortlessness and variety of his vocals, perfected by years of backup and commercial work, shade even the most shameless schmaltz with nuance and precision. But shimmering sensitivity can’t disguise the blandness of many Vandross songs, and the gap between style and content is big enough for plenty of potential fans to slip through. A bright, uncluttered production style highlighted by star-quality backing vocals (provided by such pros as Cissy Houston, David Lasley, Cheryl Lynn and Fonzi Thornton) tips the balance in his favor, but Vandross needs more than sparkling singles (“Give Me the Reason,” “Stop to Love”) and a thrilling revival (Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart”) to clinch this deal. Or does he? The album, throwaway mush and all, is already platinum and has gone higher on the pop charts than any other album in Vandross’s career.
Freddie Jackson, though his LP is also platinum and is tracking right behind Luther’s on the pop chart, has made less of a crossover impact, but his success on the black charts has been spectacular. Jackson’s 1985 debut was the Number One soul album for sixteen straight weeks, and his current release, optimistically titled Just Like the First Time, is in its ninth week at the same spot. Mining much the same territory as Vandross — soul ballads and midtempo jaunts of little distinction — Jackson is more the pillow-talking love man, the tender grind partner. Most of his material (written and produced by various up-and-comers, the ablest of whom is Paul Laurence) has a sleek urban-contemporary polish, but it’s rarely gripping or fresh. Nonetheless, like Vandross, Jackson can get under your skin with his hushed intimacy, his trust-in-me sincerity. He reins in the showoffy moves without denying himself the occasional flourish (check the closing blowout, “You Are My Love”). In the end, however, Just Like the First Time is more workmanlike than wonderful. Jackson’s skill is all dressed up with no place to go.
Newcomer Gregory Abbott has considerably more modest vocal abilities than Vandross or Jackson, but he’s clever enough to scale his material to fit. Writing and producing his debut, Shake You Down, Abbott constructs a deft, unpretentious showcase featuring eight light and lively pop songs reminiscent of the Spinners’ frothiest Thom Bell hits. Abbott has a sliding, wafer-thin falsetto that recalls that group’s Philippe Wynne in humor and vivacity. He is careful not to push his vocals beyond his obvious limits, and he wraps the songs in a marvelous sweetness, fragile but sharp edged. Throughout the LP, and especially on the single “Shake You Down,” the singer comes off as a softie, a puppy-love man; it would seem that he’d be no match for the nasty boys and girls prowling the charts these days and that he’d be easily overpowered by the sheer emotion of Vandross and Jackson. But maybe this determined teddy bear is just what we need right now. Stylized and streamlined, calculated as hell, Abbott’s soul neoclassicism is crossing over everywhere, and this charming man is retro nuevo’s new conquering hero.