80s Black Pop Crossover

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As we continue to reflect over the death of Whitney Houston, it’s important to remember the time period when she emerged. The 1980s was not only a period when technology began to take over the music industry in the form of drum machines, synthesizers and sampling keyboards; but also a time of cultural conservatism. The baby-boomer generation of the 1950s and 1960s enjoyed broad yet waning influence in pop culture. We like to remember that electronic music, hip-hop and post-punk (which evolved into indie-rock) came of age back then. But we often forget that those new and exciting sounds were far removed from the corporate rock and adult contemporary mainstream.

The world of black music was no different. The charts were mostly dominated by artists who launched their careers during the 1960s. The music they produced was often incredible – indeed, this era is celebrated as the heyday of “boogie funk” and “post-disco,” a brief oasis for musicians increasingly threatened by the insurgent hip-hop horde. But it could also be very bland and safe. Much like their white counterparts, older black music fans were retreating to the safe comforts of the quiet storm, a programming term for classic soul, smooth jazz, and lots of ballads. (Nelson George writes lucidly about this period in his book The Death of Rhythm and Blues.)

Black artists trying to break their audience’s stupor had an additional problem; the music industry in the 1980s was extremely segregated. We’ve all heard the story of how Columbia Records forced MTV to play Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” because the channel rarely programmed black songs in heavy rotation. Between 1981 and 1985, only three black artists reached number one on the album charts: Jackson, Prince and Lionel Richie. In 1981 and 1982, there were none. Pop radio was even worse: Only four songs by black artists reached number one during those two years. This is why Jackson is viewed as a pioneer. After black artists were consigned to the margins following the demise of disco, the groundbreaking popularity of Thriller made the industry recognize them again. But don’t assume that Jackson, Houston, and others were underground or alternative. Inexplicably, and even with major labels supporting them with vast financial resources, they often had trouble gaining wide acceptance.

As a result, Jackson, Prince and others who managed to break through the glass ceiling were called “crossover” stars, because they managed to cross over to the mainstream (re: white) audience. (Of course, this assumes that white people usually didn’t listen to black music, which is another falsehood.) They appealed to fans of hard rock (Tina Turner, Prince), adult contemporary (Anita Baker) and/or that strange mix of synthesized dance music that typified 80s pop (the Pointer Sisters, Whitney Houston). This list covers black artists who earned platinum or better sales between 1981 and 1986. (The sole outlier is the electro-funk band Midnight Star, which earned double-platinum with No Parking on the Dance Floor despite no pop radio support.)

Luckily, this “crossover” nonsense began to end when a generation of younger artists finally took over the pop charts in the late 1980s. They were led by artists like Janet Jackson, perhaps the last of the era to be saddled with the condescending “crossover” label. Appropriately, her breakthrough album was called Control.

Michael Jackson, Thriller

There’s not much left to say about the biggest selling album ever. If you lived in the 1980s, you remember the Thriller juggernaut, and if you didn’t … you probably still know these songs by heart. Some prefer the disco of 1979’s Off The Wall, but this arguably has a better range, from the kittenish electro-funk of “P.Y.T.” to the quiet storm lullaby “Human Nature.” (The only bum note is the cutesy Paul McCartney duet “The Girl Is Mine.”) Producers Rod Temperton and Quincy Jones polished these songs to a gleaming pop sheen that lingers in the world’s memory decades later.

Prince & the Revolution, Purple Rain

How does a funk artist crack notoriously segregated rock radio? Make a pop album better than anything Huey Lewis & the News has done. That’s one story behind this wildly orgiastic soundtrack to his hit movie. It has innovations – “When Doves Cry” was the first number-one hit without a bass line – and lots of Hendrix-like guitar flash. Then there is Prince’s struggle to resolve the freakish carnality of “Darling Nikki” with his Jehovah’s Witness faith and a desire for true love expressed on the epic title track. He found peace with these contradictions as his career evolved, but on this magnificent provocation, they seem as wide and alienating as the stadiums he would soon conquer.

Lionel Richie, Can’t Slow Down

In 1983, there was only one rival to Michael Jackson for pop megastardom, and that was … Lionel Richie? The former Commodores front man is undeniably a great songwriter, but he was in the right place at the right time with this album that conquered all demographics. Believe it or not, his cheesy midtempo hits “All Night Long” and “Running with the Night” rocked nightclubs back in the day. Baby boomers loved “Hello” and the country-ish “Penny Lover”; and “Love Will Find A Way” was an adult contemporary staple. The result was that Can’t Slow Down sold over ten million copies.

Whitney Houston, Whitney Houston

On her multi-platinum debut, Houston flits across early 80s urban styles, including post-disco boogie (the underrated “Thinking About You”), quiet storm ballads (“Hold Me” with Teddy Pendergrass) and Hi-NRG dance-pop (“How Will I Know”). It’s the ballads on which she unleashed her incredible mezzo-soprano voice that made her a mega-star. “Saving All of My Love” and “You Give Good Love” retain her soul origins, but “The Greatest Love of All” is a bravura performance unencumbered by genre and points towards the household name she would become.

Janet Jackson, Control

We forget what a major shock Control was in 1986. Jackson was better known as a TV actress on Good Times and Fame, and her first two albums flopped. With help from producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, she remade herself with hard synth-funk like “Pleasure Principle” and “Nasty.” Much like her soon-to-be pop rival Madonna, Jackson had a thin voice, but she used it effectively, and when she growled sassily, “I want to be the one in control,” it sounded dangerous. This wasn’t a hip-hop record, yet it was the first big salvo from a new generation that would remake black music.

Tina Turner, Private Dancer

Of all the 80s hits from veteran soul divas-turned-crossover stars, Tina Turner’s Private Dancer was the best. It has pathos – she opens with “I Might Have Been Queen,” and imagines herself as a sad old stripper on the poignant title track – and exhilarating hard rock. When she sings “Show Some Respect,” she bangs as hard as Pat Benatar, and her pairing with Heaven 17 on the Al Green cover “Let’s Stay Together” is a sinuous piece of synth-pop. Turner’s determination despite years of adversity guides her, resulting in an incredible career comeback and a genuine artistic achievement.

Anita Baker, Rapture

Anita Baker’s voice is like nothing else. It’s wintry and heavy like Michael McDonald’s, yet stylized like a torch singer. When her songs from Rapture played on the radio – and they all did, if not as pop hits, then as deep album cuts – it was unmistakable. These gems ranged from romantic ecstasy (the classic “Sweet Love”) to the pleasures of long-term relationships (“Same Ol’ Love”), and despite her relative youth, she sounded like a wise old soul. Bridging the gap between smooth jazz, R&B and adult pop, Baker’s Rapture was a unique achievement that proved impossible for her to equal.

Rick James, Street Songs

On Rick James’ best album, he returns to his Stone City roots. He reminisces about growing up in Buffalo on “Below the Funk (Pass the J),” castigates “Mr. Policeman” over a riff similar to Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself,” and sings about the hardships of “Ghetto Life.” When he teams with former lover and protégé Teena Marie on “Fire & Desire,” they create one of the most passionate duets ever. Street Songs’ melding of disco, P-Funk and New Wave captures a transitional phase. James’ street-conscious “Super Freak” seemed like the future. Instead, it was the end of an era.

Marvin Gaye, Midnight Love

Gaye’s final album before his 1984 death hasn’t aged well. It has a tinny, underdeveloped electronic sound, and only “Sexual Healing” has that supple, enveloping bass that music fans love most about early 80s black music. Midnight Love sold millions on the strength of “Sexual Healing,” a masterpiece of erotic rapture as well as a knowing update of 60s doo-wop and Motown pop. Other songs bear hints of Gaye’s genius for multi-tracking his voice into layered choruses, particularly “Turn on Some Music,” “Joy” and “’Til Tomorrow.” But those annoying keyboards are a distraction.

The Pointer Sisters, Break Out

Helmed by rock producer Richard Perry, the music of Break Out is completely synthesized dance-pop. The contrast between the robotic arrangements and the Pointer Sisters gospel-inspired arrangements creates a powerful frisson that the ladies allude to in “Neutron Dance,” a song about partying despite the techno-apocalypse. The first half is stacked with singles like “Jump (For My Love),” “Automatic,” and “I’m So Excited” (a re-release of a 1982 single, it was a major hit the second time around). The second half isn’t as good, despite the sexually-explicit funk of “Baby, Come and Get It.”

Luther Vandross, The Night I Fell In Love

Widely considered Vandross’ finest hour, The Night I Fell in Love excises the post-disco of past albums to focus on his strength as a master balladeer. There are two dance tracks – indeed, “’Til My Baby Comes Home” and “It’s Over Now” were black radio hits – but they’re secondary to showcases like “If Only for One Night,” where he describes the desperation of asking a woman for a one-night stand, and a definitive cover of Stevie Wonder’s dream-like “Creepin’.” The theme is intense romanticism, and Vandross’ magnificently rich voice makes these love testaments seem vividly real.

Stevie Wonder, In Square Circle

Stevie Wonder is such a genius that even his sub-par albums have moments of pleasure. Despite its thinly-conceived urban pop, In Square Circle bears hidden treasures like the anti-apartheid message of “It’s Wrong,” a thematic sequel to his historic MLK holiday anthem “Happy Birthday,” and the lovely “Whereabouts,” where he sings in a melodic lilt, “my whereabouts are somewhere lost in yesterday with you.” The cloying hit “Part-Time Lover” is saved by a Luther Vandross cameo on backing vocals, but “Land of La La” sounds like a yuppie knockoff of “Living for the City.”

Freddie Jackson, Rock Me Tonight

Freddie Jackson’s debut is a classic of 80s quiet storm. It soothes with entreaties to pure love; even the most sexual number, “Rock Me Tonight (For Old Times’ Sake),” promotes monogamy. Mostly written by producer Barry Eastmond (the title track was penned by Paul Laurence), Rock Me Tonight is one long, sensuous ballad, from “You Are My Lady,” a popular wedding song for years, to its sole uptempo number, the placid “Calling.” It’s a time capsule, but it hasn’t dated as badly as other albums of the era. Even today, it still sounds warm and comforting.

Patti Labelle, Winner in You

Be warned: Winner in You doesn’t include “New Attitude” and “Stir It Up,” the singles from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack that made her a pop star. She was stuck at Philadelphia International Records, so two years passed before she capitalized on their success. Baby-boomer trends had changed by then, so Winner in You emphasizes the quiet storm. “On My Own” with Michael McDonald, “Oh People” and “Kiss Away the Pain” are fine ballads, and Labelle uses her famously ear-piercing voice to stirring effect. But you can’t help but miss those dance hits at which she excels.

Aretha Franklin, Who’s Zoomin Who?

Aretha Franklin was 43 when this album was released, but you wouldn’t know it from her girlish and flirtatious performance. “So drop the top baby/ And let’s cruise on into/ It’s better than ever street,” she purrs on the album’s biggest hit, “Freeway of Love.” Her powerhouse gospel vocals are present, too, especially on the title track, “Integrity,” and “Another Night.” Who’s Zoomin Who? has a dated pop sound, and guest Peter Wolf’s faux-Prince vocals on “Push” are embarrassing. But don’t begrudge the Queen of Soul for staying relevant during the neon-and-pastel 1980s.

Further Listening:

Kool & the Gang, Emergency
Billy Ocean, Suddenly
New Edition, New Edition
Chaka Khan, I Feel for You
Cameo, Word Up
The Jacksons, Victory
Earth, Wind & Fire, Raise!
The Time, Ice Cream Castle

(Rhapsody – March 2, 2012)

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