The attempt to translate R&B achievement into pop success often involves a cruel irony: The most compelling features of black music are often compromised by artists’ crossover ambitions. Fortunately, recent albums by Luther Vandross and Anita Baker, two standard-bearers of contemporary black pop, offer ample evidence that even as you venture from home base, you can keep the fire that defined your appeal.
Vandross’ Songs especially illumines the encompassing visions and ironic quests that fuel and frustrate his career. Vandross has not easily crossed over to pop success because his craft is edifyingly specific, rooted in the particular nuances of the soul tradition in which he was nurtured. This album of remakes of well-known songs enlarges Vandross’ delightful fetish for “Lutherization,” innovatively shaping a classic song with his unique musical signature. Vandross’ vocal style weds the emotional range and stylistic sensibilities of female artists like Aretha Franklin to the hopeful romanticism outlined in the masculine fluidity of Sam Cooke.
On “Killing Me Softly” (Roberta Flack), “Reflections” (Diana Ross and the Supremes), “What the World Needs Now” (Dionne Warwick), “Since You’ve Been Gone” (Franklin) and “Evergreen” (Barbra Streisand), Vandross recasts lyrics originally interpreted by a pantheon of his female influences. He invests the songs with shades of meaning through ad-libs and melismas, sonically embellished by orchestral arrangements, gospel harmonies and dense vocal layerings of his own voice. On “Killing Me Softly” he counterpoises the lyric “And then he looked right through me/As if I wasn’t there” with the aside “I was right there,” further personalizing an already intimate revelation. And on “Since You’ve Been Gone,” Vandross reinforces the plea for a departed lover’s return with thickly textured vocal support perforated by the singer’s own witness.
Vandross’ exploration of male, duo and group territory is equally intriguing. His gospel-tinged version of Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” ironically highlights the song’s decidedly secular admonition to love by convenience more than principle. And his reprise of McFadden and Whitehead’s inspirational “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” houses up the feel-good exhortation to overcome negativity. Although his treatment of Lionel Richie’s “Hello” is breathtaking, faithful without being merely imitative, Vandross’ earthy treatment of Rod Temperton’s “Always and Forever” is too subdued; Vandross’ baritone appears uninspired when compared with the ethereal rendition of the song by Johnnie Wilder. While there may be no stunning surprises on Songs, this collection, brilliant in many spots, proves that Vandross is a master of musical reinterpretation.
Anita Baker interprets a few classics as well, though her focus on Rhythm of Love is on enriching her artistic vocabulary while expanding her musical base. Baker’s covers of “The Look of Love,” “You Belong to Me” and “My Funny Valentine” are spare, powerful reworkings that testify to her considerable vocal strengths: When she wraps her voice around an intelligent lyric, her smoky contralto has few equals. Her artistry demands serious, repeated listening, and on the original songs presented on Rhythm, she delivers.
“Body and Soul” allows Baker to explore the contours of total commitment, her rich, resonant tone riding tight gospel harmonies. “Sometimes I Wonder Why” is characteristically jazzy, a mellow meditation about the risks and limits of love poignantly pleaded over Joe Sample’s breezy piano chords. Baker even exposes the once-taken-for-granted relationship between R&B and country as stinging guitar chords accent her searing profession of inexhaustible fidelity on “Plenty of Room.” But the real gem is “I Apologize,” a haunting confession of culpability that goes right to the heart.
Vandross and Baker have redefined black American music during the last decade. Their strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, index much more than their individual art. Rather, their work embodies the possibilities of black pop, and it is to their credit that they continue to search for the best expressions of their consistently engaging muses.