This week I've found myself listening to Anita Baker on repeat, a recurring ritual I find myself captured in every couple of months. For any discerning listener who likes their pop music a little more sophisticated or slightly left of centre, Anita is the obvious choice in the field of great "soul divas". Forget Whitney, forget Beyonce, to me Anita is the greatest of the modern generation, no question. Her classy and refined brand of romantic soul is simply unparalleled. Where many could be put off by a lot of mainstream R&B of the 80s and the overproduced chase for dance pop success, Anita was always so elegant and tasteful. A distinct brand of adult sophistication. Alongside Luther, they almost single-handedly reclaimed R&B as a high-brow art form, at least within the mainstream.
Emotionally rich yet subtly restrained, Anita forges traditional pop with jazz and gospel undertones. Ignore the obvious differences in production, it's clear she carried the spirit of Sarah Vaughan or Nancy Wilson in her delivery. Her sultry sound is quiet storm personified. Light the fire place and pour a glass of red music. Music that will seal the deal on your hot date, and bring you to tears when in solitude (I can honestly vouch for both). Of course Anita maintained some crossover pop sensibilities, but it was always so smoothly executed. Alongside her predominant production collaborator and former Chapter 8 band mate, Michael Powell, her sound was the perfect marriage of slick jazz arrangements with emotionally charged, buttery soul. The feeling in the music carries itself. Not dependent on catchy hooks or club production. Mind you, I did recently attend an interview with Larry Heard where he mentioned the hypothetical dream of collaborating with Anita Baker. Can you imagine her voice over Mr Finger's lush chords? one can only dream, but I digress. And how about that alto? Seriously, I can't think of too many other vocalists with such an effortlessly beautiful voice. Anita has the most exquisitely rich and delicate tone, and cuts through tracks so powerfully yet never overdone. Get lost in her music and you really will get chills. I'm absolutely no authority on the matter, but I think if you wanted to find the spirit of femininity and empowerment, you can find it in Anita's voice!
Anita never did the choreographed dance routines or the risque outfits. She didn't have to. Like her music, she was pure style and elegance. She reinforces that in the world of pop, you don't need to overproduce your sound or play eye-candy to have a hit record. Her breakout success Rapture gets most of the attention and rightly so. That album is absolute perfection and arguably the greatest quiet storm full-length ever made. But don't sleep on her other work. Her debut The Songstress while maybe a little more raw, is equally essential. Her Rapture follow ups Giving You The Best That I Got and Compositions also have stand out moments. I really can't even list my favourite Anita ballads because there's simply too many. To me Anita Baker will always be the greatest. She encapsulates what soul music is all about in the purest sense. Emotionally rich, heartfelt and full of romanticism. If you aren't familiar I highly recommend you get acquainted.