The night before most singers put out an album, tradition dictates that they spend some time promoting their new work. Music is a business, after all, and listeners can’t stream or buy your songs if they don’t know that those songs exist.
It would be generous to say that the R&B veteran Keith Sweat looks on that promotional tradition with blithe indifference. “They keep telling me to sing something from the new shit,” he complained during his album release show at the iHeartRadio Theater in downtown Manhattan last Thursday. He did not give into those demands — except to play the briefest snippet of “How Many Ways,” from his new Playing for Keeps album — preferring instead to focus on the long string of singles that kept him on the radio throughout the Nineties.
Not that anyone was complaining: A Keith Sweat hits review is magnificent. He’s a specialist in slow ballads — there’s a reason this man has a track titled “Make It Last Forever” — that are tenaciously amorous. The long gaps between beats provide Sweat with extra time to cajole, promise, tempt, demand and seduce. Few performers loved a direct, juicy question as much this one. “Would you mind if I kissed your lips 1,000 times?” “How do you like it when I do it just like this?” Sometimes the answers are obvious, but Sweat says them anyway: “Who can love you like me?” he asks. “Nobody.”
Sweat is from a generation of singers for whom performing was a prerequisite for becoming a star, rather than an afterthought that must be learned ASAP once a singer scores a Spotify hit, so his shows are thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish. He’s both self-deprecating — “I might look the same, but it ain’t easy no more” — and a lovable show-off: At one point, he ad-libbed crazily in his falsetto as he sang, “I need me some Hennessy.” “I know some of y’all didn’t even know I could do that shit, did you?” he added. The DJ was impressed enough to bring him the requested drink. Later, a woman in the crowd yelled to Sweat, “you’re my Hennessy!”
Sweat helped change R&B forever when he started to work with the producer Teddy Riley in Harlem in 1987. The concept, which others, including Jam & Lewis and L.A. Reid and Babyface, were also working towards at the time, was simple: Mix singing with shattering rap beats. Riley had already produced for MCs like Doug E. Fresh; Sweat told him, “just give me the hip-hop and learn some chords.” In turn, Riley encouraged Sweat to adopt a more nasal intonation, adding a lacerating edge to his voice; this sat well next to the cutting drum programming. “I just wanted to have a record on the radio,” Sweat explained during a brief address at his album release show. “I just wanted to walk down the streets of Harlem and say, ‘you hear my joint on the radio? That’s me, baby.'”
He got his wish, though not without some initial resistance — radio listeners chose to “break” Sweat’s single “I Want Her” during influential New York DJ Frankie Crocker’s on-air “Make It or Break It” segment. But Crocker, knowing a good thing when he heard it, played the track anyway. “I Want Her” became a breakout hit for Sweat; its parent album, Make It Last Forever, earned a triple platinum certification, and the singer went on to sell north of 17 million albums and singles. “I Want Her” was also a defining moment for New Jack Swing, a savagely effective fusion which reigned for the next five-ish years and became so popular that even Michael Jackson went New Jack on Dangerous.
Sweat, however, is not overly interested in revisiting those days. “I don’t want people to say, ‘Keith Sweat, he’s back in that ancient time,'” the singer explains, snacking on nuts and berries the day before his album release show. “You can’t do that.” His speaking voice, low with a little rasp, is more or less exactly the same now as it sounded on the intro to “I Really Love You” in 1991.
Sweat’s initial interest in conjoining R&B and hip-hop still drives his work: Playing for Keeps opens with “Eenie Meenie Miney Mo,” which aims for the rattling oomph of modern radio rap. “It don’t matter how old I am; it shows I have that youthful sound now,” Sweat says. “That record could be played in the club, and if you don’t mention my name, it would probably be a Number One record. People would be like, ‘who’s that?'”
“As you get older, you have to reinvent yourself time and time again,” the singer adds. “That’s a good thing. You draw new generations into your world that might not have been interested.”
Make It Last Forever also included “How Deep Is Your Love,” and although it didn’t become a standard bearer for a musical movement or even an official single, it established the template for most of Sweat’s best songs for the rest of his career. This is a churning, plodding ballad, filled with vocoder-warped background vocals and of course, a great question: “Is it wrong for us to love like this?” Many performers find it hard to simmer for a long time without boiling over, but that was a skill Sweat mastered from the start. He insisted that his partners master it as well: “I want you to take your time,” he says on another brazen hit, 1994’s “Get Up on It.”
The “How Deep Is Your Love” formula is strong enough to fill a Greatest Hits collection’s worth of tracks, many of which Sweat performed at the iHeartRadio theater. (No “Twisted,” though?) He also draws from this source for “How Many Ways,” which led the Playing for Keeps album campaign. The single features K-Ci, of Jodeci fame, one of several R&B veterans, along with Riley and Tank, who offer Keith their support on the album. “Joanne was supposed to be on this record too, but she chose not to [be],” Sweat quips, pointing to Joanne Madhere, who works for his label, Red Music. “She was gonna sing a duet.”
Joanne looks up from her phone to reply, “every time I get in the studio, he don’t show up.”
“Cause I know nobody’ll play the record,” Sweat jokes.
Any aging performer who has enjoyed commercial success eventually hits up against a more serious version of that wisecrack: Will listeners still play your records? Although Sweat doesn’t do big streaming numbers, he has been able to maintain the support of radio programmers. His last album, Dressed to Impress, included “Good Love,” which went Number One at the format known as Adult R&B, meaning it was reaching around 10 – 12 million listeners a week. “How Many Ways” peaked at Number Five. The follow-up, “Boomerang” with Candace Price, was one of the most-added singles in the format last week.
Sweat betrays little anxiety about his commercial impact, suggesting that he mostly leaves that responsibility in the hands of his record label. At the iHeartRadio theater the following day, however, he did say he hoped that young artists, who mix genres without thinking, realize they are living in a world that Sweat’s generation helped create. “People like myself opened doors, so they can do what they do,” the singer said. “I think it’s sad and crazy when you have an artist today who [doesn’t acknowledge that].”
But that was a rare moment of solemnity during an otherwise wildly entertaining show. Sweat sang with combative vigor in a studded leather jacket as three disco balls beamed above him; at times he stopped center stage, hooked one thumb in his belt, and really let a note fly. “How many of you gotta go to work tomorrow?” he asked at one point. “You might as well call in late now.”
That was funny — the show ended at a chaste 9 p.m. Before it came to a close, Sweat did squeeze in just one ad for Playing for Keeps. “Make sure you go buy that album!” he said. “I’m tired as hell.”