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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Anita Baker, "Rapture"

Anita Baker
Elektra (1986)

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die + 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Within every genre, no matter how low the quality of the music in that genre tends to be, there is usually at least one act that can redeem it, even if the rest are terrible. Unfortunately for the "quiet storm" sub-genre within R&B, I still haven't found that act. And based on the critical raves that I've read about Anita Baker's "Rapture," I somewhat doubt that I'll ever find that act.

"Quiet storm" was a term created by late night disc jockeys to describe the smooth R&B played during the evening hours to promote "laying down next to the fire" and other romantic shenanigans. Nowadays, the sound of the dumbed down jazz music and PG-13 lyrics on sexuality are associated with the '80s in the same way that bad disco keyboards are associated with the '70s. The label "quiet storm" has almost been absorbed even more into the "adult alternative" classification than into R&B. Regardless of what critics say, this album is at best just another example of this easily dated genre.

Most of the blame doesn't rest with Baker fortunately. She came out of Detroit, a city that served as the capital of funk and soul thanks to its housing of Motown Records. Baker came into the recording of "Rapture" with the idea that her backing instrumentals would be primarily jazz, much like the classics that she had been brought up on. Producer Michael Powell however was interested in an R&B approach, which during the early '80s involved adding synthesizers and drum machines, and cutting back the jazz influence to a minimum. Synthesizers and drum machines can be effective instruments, but in this frame they weren't. They were cheesy, and the bass lines were lame.

On the other hand, Powell was probably right when it comes to what the audience wanted. The album sold 8 million copies and won two Grammys for Baker. I've never given much credence to Oscars as an indicator of quality however.

Baker is a natural alto with an impressive range, but she tended strongly towards the lower end of the spectrum. Frankly, it doesn't bring out the sex appeal present in tracks like the hit single "Sweet Love." It works excellent when Baker isn't in rapture, but I just don't hear it as a call to carnal behavior. Both books contrast Baker with the era's rising star Whitney Houston, describing Baker's subtler approach to Houston's overwrought emotions. Both artists are talented, but I find it off-putting to describe Houston as melodramatic. Not helping Baker's cause are the awkwardly added harmonies on tracks like "Been So Long." Baker is the headliner for sure, but her backers can't hold a candle, sounding like yin to Baker's talented yang. When the harmonies are well handled, as in "Mystery," the results are the best on the album.

This is the first time I have felt uncomfortable with my ultimate conclusion on an album. There have been others that I have dismissed as not worth your time, but "Rapture" seems to be so profoundly adored by critics, I wonder if there is something that I'm missing. If there is a deep and profound quality to Baker's work that I've overlooked, please let me know under the comments section.

INTERESTING FACT: Between 1987 and 1990, Baker won the Best R&B Female Vocal Performance every year, totaling four of her eight career Grammys.


1 comment:

  1. Readers: Upon second listen, I owe a "mea culpa" to Baker; her voice is sublime and delightful, but I just can't get over the backing soundtrack. Simply terrible.