'Re single-handedly created the soul diva. It didn't exist before her. In the late '60s, she liberated soul music's ache and joy from stultifying crossover dreams, in the process redefining not only "pop" but what it meant and took to "cross over" in the first place. She recovered the gospel impulse and fiercely underscored the revolutionary thrust in R&B, giving voice and body to both the psychic unease and the defiant hopefulness of the cultural moment.
When the '70s rolled around, Chaka Khan took it to a whole 'nother level.
Chaka, whose own politics were shaped by her early involvement with the Chicago branch of the Black Panthers, has never made a secret of the fact that her burning ambition was to be a jazz singer, a "real" singer. To that end, she's fashioned her voice into a horn; while Aretha's influence is undeniable, so is Coltrane's, so is Miles'. At the same time, it was her complete immersion in the sinewy grooves of '70s funk rockers Rufus that taught her how to vamp, how to pocket and how to bottle the sound of a slow screw against the wall. The wonder of her voice is not just how she can effortlessly segue from a gritty, earthy growl to a breathy come-on, from a crystalline wail to a sultry riff, but how those varied qualities play out simultaneously. Throughout her career, but especially since leaving Rufus, Chaka (along with producers such as Aretha's old helmsman, Arif Mardin) has showcased these strengths by layering tracks with countermelodies, duets with herself, and her own backing vocals. What she brought to the game was a jazz musician's discipline, technical finesse and musical ear, as well as the life force that's at the heart of classic soul singing. Like Billie and Aretha, Chaka's influence is so pervasive as to be immeasurable.
On her new album, Come 2 My House (produced by The Artist for his NPG label), Ms. Khan's voice is as astonishing as ever. "Betcha I" shows the 45-year-old singer to be in as fiery and funky form as when she was the halter-topped, feathers-in-the-hair, bell-bottomed front woman for Rufus. The first single, "Spoon," has a grown woman's playful sultriness; it annihilates the wan female sexuality that now pervades R&B. (Sparkle? Mya?) Likewise, the rock-tinged "I'll Never Be a Fool" ("I'll never open my legs again to a man who's insecure/I'll never open my legs again unless I'm really sure . . .") is the oath of a woman battle-scarred but undefeated. And on the tropical-flavored title track, Chaka's whispered invitations and heavy breathing are warm-ups to a showstopping blast at song's end, where she goes toe to toe with gleaming horns.
But it's the delicate, autobiographical "This Crazy Life of Mine," complete with swirling strings, that gives the album its center. "This is the story of mind, soul and heart," she sings gently, and the burnished tones in her voice are pure tonic. Reminiscent of her hit "Love Me Still," from the Clockers soundtrack, it stuns with the power of unadorned singing, complete with pitch, musicality, heart - and lyrics that are actually about something.
For all the wonder that is Khan, though, Come 2 My House is only partly satisfying. Truth is, The Artist's creative well settled to a low mark a long time ago. He gets points for clearing away clutter, for showcasing Chaka's voice with due respect, and for hearing and using it as a powerful trombone/sax/ trumpet. Piano and horn licks sprout up and flourish throughout the album, and Chaka has entire conversations with them, sprinkling in some cool scatting. But The Artist's production is embarrassingly dated, epitomized by the grating thwack of an '80s drum machine that runs coldly throughout the album, hamstringing what should be a triumphant comeback. a