Luther Vandross first big solo hit single, Never Too Much (after hed established himself as a successful session and jingle singer, and as the lead voice on the disco classics Glow of Love and Searching by the group Change), created a dazzling aural illusion interlacing craft, style and technique. Effortlessly sprinting through the songs ecstatic verses, Vandross conveyed the lyrics longing the despair born of joy, the lust and release with a playfulness belied by his years of discipline. The 1981 album named for the single is, of course, a modern soul classic. For the works that followed, its the rarely varied blueprint: a handful of up-tempo numbers, some eviscerating ballads, and cover tunes (A House Is Not a Home, Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me, Love Wont Let Me Wait) that simply became his. Luther (pronounced Lootha or Loofa, depending on degree of ghettoness) defined soul music for a heady stretch of the early 80s.
Like many contemporary black artists, Vandross was forced to grapple with the rise of hip-hop as a depressingly limiting element of popular imaginations and aesthetics. His response for a long time was to draw ever deeper on his formula, and eventually the well just ran dry. His first three or four albums still hold up as the ultimate all-purpose (court, screw, break up, grieve) soundtracks. After that, there were only flickers of the old brilliance.
It would be great to report that Vandross current Dance With My Father is a return to form. With his recent stroke, fans are pulling not only for his recovery, but for a return of the Vandross who earned their adoration in the first place. The good news is that hes constitutionally incapable of making a bad album. And that voice is still divine. But Dance suffers from a longtime plague lack of inspiration. This time around, its as though he simply said fuck it, grabbed a copy of Vibe, and cobbled together both his subject matter and his list of collaborators.
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So: Were saddled with embarrassing tunes about the travails of being rich and famous (Apologize; If It Aint One Thing, which features Foxy Brown in full-on Lil Kim voice); lackluster covers (the classic Donny HathawayRoberta Flack duet The Closer I Get to You, here with the ubiquitous Beyoncé; a butchery of Bill Withers Lovely Day featuring Busta Rhymes); and a what-da-hell? duet with Queen Latifah. In that last item, Hit It Again, Loofa goes on about his insatiable sexual appetite, his need to hit it again and again, with Latifah portraying the object and benefactor of his lust. She returns the, um, ardor. The comedy subtext (a farce masquerading as a joke wrapped inside a wink & nudge conundrum) completely overwhelms the ridiculous text, and the only thing missing from this Negro version of a Doris DayRock Hudson film is Ludacris in the Tony Randall role.
The production on Dance With My Father is too often a coldly accurate mimicry of state-of-the-art R&B and hip-hop, which means that you long for his early works warmth and interplay between the singer and the live instrumentation. Fans, though, will be in heaven at the generous use of backing singers (including such reliable collaborators as Cissy Houston, Tawatha Agee and Cindy Mizelle); theyre the best thing about the album.
The title song, also the first single, derives its poignancy not from the lyrics or even Vandross performance, but from the fact of his stroke. On its own, this song of ache a son hungering for just one more moment with his dead father is a little too familiar in its scenarios and storyline to be the tearjerker its clearly meant to be. But when a 50-ish man, whose voice has always had a tremulously wounded quality transcending the romantic woes he sang about, pulls back the curtain and reveals at least one source of his blues, and then has his own brush with death, its a sobering and powerful bit of the life/art mesh. Luther in his prime, though, wouldnt have needed that particular conflation to break your heart.
LUTHER VANDROSS | Dance With My Father (J Records)