t the start of the ‘80s, R&B; was a mess, attempting to drag itself out of the disco dead pool while still retaining its funkiness. By decade’s end, however, it was a genre triumphant, thanks to the rise and rise of New Jack Swing (which gave way, in the early ‘90s, to the “hip-hop soul “of Mary J. Blige and Jodeci). That’s one hell of a decade, and this is its journey told in records.
There are a lot of artists missing from this Bluffer’s Guide, notably most of the crossover giants of the ‘80s. You don’t need to hear about how important Michael Jackson or Prince were; that should be common knowledge. Whitney Houston was at least as pop as R&B;, and the same can be said for Janet Jackson. Lionel Richie was a funkster in the ‘70s as a Commodore, who sold out as big as he could’ve dreamed as a pop star in the ‘80s. No hating—he did his thing, as Randy (no relation) Jackson would say. Tina Turner was of rhythm and blues (think ‘60s), not R&B; (‘80s), while the likes of the Isley Brothers and Stevie Wonder were much more ‘70s artists than ‘80s, even as they had plenty of hits in the Reagan years. The artists, songs, and albums discussed herein are those you need to know to understand what R&B; was in the 1980s, and to some extent what it became in the years that followed. (Listed in chronological order.)
Maze featuring Frankie Beverly – “Southern Girl” (1980)
They have nine gold albums, nine top 10 R&B; albums (though their pop peak was #25), and nine top 10 R&B; singles, including a pair of number ones—but I’d bet you that 99% of non-black America couldn’t tell you who they are. Much more so than even Freddie Jackson, Maze and their leader, Frankie Beverly, are the biggest R&B; act you’ve never heard of. Each year, they sell out the Louisiana Superdome during the Essence Superfest (a three-day series of concerts and seminars directed towards the African-American community), and they haven’t released any new music in well over a decade.
Maze is, in that sense (touring, I mean), akin to the Grateful Dead: they can sell out anywhere, anytime. What makes them so special? Their music’s a gumbo of Philly soul (think Teddy Pendergrass), ‘70s Motown (think Marvin Gaye), and a soupcon of funk (think Isley Brothers), with even a little jazz influence thrown in (think Weather Report)—these guys have some serious chops. The last of the great R&B; bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s (c’mon, who’s George Clinton playing with these days, anyway?), they lock into a groove and work it for as long as they want. “Southern Girl,” a top 10 single from the decade’s start, is a fine example of their delicious R&B; stew.
Rick James – “Give It to Me Baby” (1981)
Teena Marie – “Square Biz” (1981)
The Temptations – “Standing on the Top” (1982)
It can be argued that the sound of R&B; in the early ‘80s was the sound of Rick James—and not just his own records either, but those of his protégés Teena Marie and the Mary Jane Girls, and even the likes of the Temptations, for whom Rick wrote and produced their comeback single “Standing on the Top.” The latter is a bizarre record—hearing the Temps proclaim they want “nothin’ but the punk-funk” atop an aggressive synth riff is something, alright. But hearing those classic voices (David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks had rejoined the group for their Reunion album) rocking a Rick James groove is actually a treat. Only in the ‘80s…
Marie, of course, is one of the most soulful white women to ever rock a mic. Years before she nailed the pop charts with 1985’s “Lovergirl,” she racked up multiple R&B; hits, most notably the smash “Square Biz,” which she produced and co-wrote, and which features a hot rap (referencing everything from the poet Nikki Giovanni to filet mignon) by Marie herself. She toured “Biz”’s parent album, It Must Be Magic, by opening for her mentor on his Street Songs tour. Its centerpiece isn’t “Super Freak,” as some may think, but the hard, squelchy funk of “Give It to Me Baby.”
The commercial bridge between Parliament and Prince, James could funk just as hard, though his palette was admittedly a bit more limited. When it came to hot horn charts, spurts of wicked guitar, and synths and bass in the pocket, however, he could do it over and over again—and did. Street Songs wasn’t just about the streets; it was of the streets and would become their sound in the summer of ’81, too.
DeBarge - In A Special Way (1983)
R&B; singles, overall, were better in the ‘80s’ first half; R&B; albums were more accomplished in the second. As always, however, there were exceptions, this chief among them. The DeBarge family—brothers James, Mark, Randy, and El, along with sister Bunny—was the most self-contained act to hit the Motown roster since Rick James, as they wrote, played, sang, and produced their own songs. With Way, their rather astounding third effort, they crafted one of the decade’s most distinctive R&B; albums.
Their vocals were perfection, their songs sturdy frames on which to build (a few of them, particularly “Time Will Reveal” and “Love Me In A Special Way,” have proven themselves as classics for all time), and El’s production was sublime. It’s fairly minimal, mostly “just” keyboards, synth bass and drums tracks (a couple of songs feature strings, i.e. the classic ballads), and it complements these songs perfectly. You likely know bits of “Stay With Me” and “A Dream” via their having been sampled on B.I.G.’s “One More Chance” and 2Pac’s “I Ain’t Mad At Cha,” respectively; you should know the original sources, because they’re better. Stripped-down never sounded so warm and rich.
Cameo – “She’s Strange” (1984)
So cold! Those icy, whining synths are the backbone of Cameo’s greatest hit you’ve likely never heard, a #1 R&B;/#47 pop single about a woman who’ll greet you by “waving her skirt as a flag.” That’s not all there is to her, however; she’s also the narrator’s “Rolling Stones and [his] Eva Peron”—that’s how freaky she is. Rick James’ girl(friend)s have got nothing on this one. “She’s Strange” was the definitive proof that Cameo, one of the bigger funk bands of the late ‘70s, were storming the ‘80s in style.
Their first top 5 R&B; single in four years, “She’s Strange” became their first chart-topper. All sleek and streamlined, sinuous and sexy, important not only for its prominent featuring of rap (remember, rap wasn’t the world’s music in 1984—it was barely even considered by most R&B; stations) but for its future-shock sonics, “She’s Strange” still swings even while it’s 180° from the likes of “Hollywood Swinging.” Larry Blackmon knew precisely what he was doing—this was as significant in R&B; as Aaliyah’s “One In A Million” some 12 years later.
René & Angela – “Save Your Love (For #1)” (1985)
The duo of René Moore and Angela Winbush made nothing but strong songs, sturdy ‘80s R&B;—and deserve some extra credit for the fact that Winbush was an equal partner in their pairing, co-writing and co-producing the bulk of their output (she went on to a few more hits as a solo artist in the late ‘80s but has spent much of the past two decades behind the scenes as a producer and writer for the likes of the Isley Brothers and Stephanie Mills—see below).
What’s so important about “Save Your Love,” their first R&B; #1, however, is simple: this was the first chart-topper to feature a rapper. One of the originals, Kurtis Blow, contributed the song’s intro and a middle 16, earning this “Love” a place in R&B; history. It’s a nicely pulsating R&B;/dance number anyway, but Blow puts it over the top.
Freddie Jackson – “Rock Me Tonight (For Old Times Sake)” (1985)
Anita Baker - Rapture (1986)
Just as much as the balladry of Luther Vandross and Smokey Robinson’s 1975 single “Quiet Storm”—and possibly even more—Freddie Jackson’s debut single and Anita Baker’s second album defined, and to an extent birthed, what we now know as “quiet storm,” the practice many R&B; stations have of going ballad-heavy in the evening and nighttime hours (in many ways, also the precursor to the entire Adult R&B-slash-Urban; A/C format as well). Jackson’s debut single predated Rapture by a year and became one of the definitive R&B; records, if not statements, of the entire decade.
It spent six weeks atop Billboard’s R&B; singles chart and launched an astonishing ascent: by the end of 1988, three-and-a-half years after “Rock” hit #1, Jackson had topped the R&B; chart eight times - and he did so without ever hitting the pop top 10. Jackson thus became the kind of Black Superstar you don’t tend to see much of in music anymore, as colorblind as the pop charts have become; by Black Superstars, I mean entertainers who are true superstars amongst the African-American community while going largely unnoticed by American society as a whole; Frankie Beverly (see above) falls into this category as well.
Jackson made a string of classic singles, but none ever topped his first, a sumptuous let’s-do-it-again declaration to an ex, which set the template for his career and the careers of many who followed, slow and oh-so-sexy. He rocked a nation of millions and never held back
Baker’s sophomore album crossed over in spite of itself; it was to ‘86/’87 what Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me was to 2002/03, a smooth, mellow album that became an absurdly runaway across-the-board smash. (The RIAA has since certified it for sales of five million.) It’s best known, of course, for the superlative Top Ten pop and R&B; single “Sweet Love,” but Rapture can’t simply be reduced to its lead single. The album was a forward-looking retro throwback to classicism—in its songs, its production and arrangements, and most of all Baker’s singing; the term “retronuevo” was even coined by some segments of the music press at the time to, ahem, “better” describe Baker’s artistry.
New Edition - Heart Break (1987)
After too-big-for-his-own-britches Bobby Brown left for solo riches in ’86, the biggest boyband since—the Osmonds? The Jackson 5?—regrouped, “replaced” Brown with the velvet-voiced Johnny Gill (it wasn’t really a replacement, as the two are completely dissimilar singers), and grew up. And blew up. Heart Break was N.E.’s riskiest album, not only because they were without Brown, but because this was the album where, as one song put it, they went from “Boys to Men.”
Maturity never looked so easy, or so good. Their ace in the hole was Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis, who wrote and produced the bulk of Heart Break, making it the best-sounding record of New Edition’s career, but don’t discount the power and glory of these five strong voices (most notably Gill’s and Ralph Tresvant’s) and personalities (which you actually get a feel for, thanks to tracks such as “N.E. Heart Break”). Pick hit: “You’re Not My Kind of Girl,” a new spin on a topic as old as time, abetted by N.E.’s lush harmonies and some truly stunning work behind the boards from Jam & Lewis.
Alexander O’Neal - Hearsay (1987)
The abovementioned Jam and Lewis’ toughest production ever, plus some of their best songs, plus the best singer to ever employ them, equal one of the ‘80s’ truest, surest classics. “Fake” and “Criticize” are epic machine-funk, “Never Knew Love Like This” (a duet with Cherrelle) as sweet as balladry comes, “The Lovers” and “Sunshine” creamy, plush soul with which to, ideally, (re)upholster your bed. Hearsay is absolute perfection, an R&B; high-water mark, and its failure to hit commercially (outside of the R&B; realm) is the pop world’s great loss.
Keith Sweat - Make It Last Forever (1987)
Sweat was never just a New Jack Swinger; the bulk of his career was built much more on sweet, slow love jams than on the likes of “I Want Her.” His debut album is still his best: “Don’t Stop Your Love” rides a propulsive machine groove while Sweat brings out your sexy; “How Deep Is Your Love” centers itself around Teddy Riley’s cheap-sounding synth drums; “Right and a Wrong Way” is new-school lovers’ rock which presaged/forecast R. Kelly by nearly a decade (its first line is “You may be young, but you’re ready”).
“I Want Her” is a staple of ‘80s nights everywhere, but the real star here is the title track, a duet with Jacci McGhee which became the love standard of the post-Luther generation (check the way Mariah jacked it for her “Thank God I Found You” remix with Joe—Sweat’s heir apparent—and Nas). Most important, however, were Sweat’s beggin’-ass, ever-so-slightly nasal-whiny vocals, which paved the way for more than one generation of male R&B; singers—from Joe to Usher to Lloyd, Keith Sweat is a major influence.
Guy - Guy (1988)
By the time Guy’s debut was released, we’d already heard Keith Sweat’s “I Want Her,” Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid,” and the entirety of Bobby Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel, yet the definitive statement of New Jack Swing didn’t come until this. Teddy Riley, the king of New Jack Swing, hooked up with Timmy Gatling and the golden-voiced Aaron Hall to make the trio Guy, whose influence on R&B; resonated well into the next decade.
From “Groove Me” and “I Like” to “Teddy’s Jam” (a largely instrumental top 5 R&B; single) and “Spend the Night,” Guy’s debut spun off one R&B; smash after another, every one of them crackling with ideas; don’t even think Timbaland wasn’t paying attention. Riley’s production was never better, and Hall’s keening, pleading, almost desperate vocals have influenced an entire generation of male R&B; vocalists; the synth-heavy arrangements pointed the way not only to The Future (their 1990 follow-up), but to R&B;’s future. This is as state-of-the-art as New Jack Swing ever got, and alongside Alexander O’Neal’s Hearsay is one of the ‘80’s finest R&B; moments.
Babyface - Tender Lover (1989)
Two production teams owned R&B; in the latter half of the ‘80s: one was Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis (see above), and the other was L.A. Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, late of the Cincinnati-based group the Deele (who scored biggest with their lovely 1987 hit “Two Occasions”). L.A. and ‘Face made some epochal singles with Bobby Brown (such as “My Prerogative”) and, um, Pebbles (“Mercedes Boy” and “Girlfriend”; Pebbles was Mrs. Reid), but wisely saved some of their best stuff for ‘Face himself, blessed as he was with a creamy alto which easily got their songs over.
And over and over: Tender Lover spun off its title track, “It’s No Crime,” “My Kinda Girl” and “Whip Appeal” all as top three R&B; singles, and deservedly. These songs, as well as their companions on the album, are simultaneously of their moment and timeless: the production makes them of the moment (synthesized production is your friend!), and the strong songwriting makes ‘em timeless.
Stephanie Mills – “Something in the Way (You Make Me Feel)” (1989)
Mills, the original star of Broadway’s The Wiz in 1975, has had a very up-and-down recording career, starting slow out of the gate before hitting her stride in the late ‘70s with some hot disco tracks such as “Put Your Body In It” and the pop smash “Never Knew Love Like This Before.” In the early ‘80s the hits started to dry up, but after signing to MCA, Mills rose like the proverbial phoenix yet again to hit even higher highs, though only black America noticed. (The highest she charted pop in the second half of the ‘80s was #85.)
In the space of four years (1986-89) she notched four #1 R&B; singles, two of them Angela Winbush compositions. “I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love” (February ’86) was her triumphant first #1 ever, a ridiculously elegant ballad which Mills sang the hell out of. 1989’s “Something in the Way” (also produced by Winbush) just oozes class, a mid-tempo body-rocker which the bougie buppies went nuts for, perfect for a spin around the dancefloor in your sweater dress or pressed Dockers, but don’t hold that against it.
Luther Vandross - The Best of Luther Vandross… The Best of Love (1989)
Including a compilation in a Bluffer’s Guide may be seen as cheating, and you may be right, but this one inclusion is undeniable; there may be no single album (in this case, a double) which better encapsulates R&B; in the ‘80s, and this one stretches from the decade’s start to its end. Luther Vandross was the decade’s penultimate R&B; singer and its biggest R&B; star, and The Best of Love shows why, sliding from the lush disco of Change’s “Searching” and (especially) “The Glow of Love” into its cousin, his smash solo debut “Never Too Much”; revealing what a superb stylist he was on the likes of his “Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me” medley and his (some would say definitive) take on “A House Is Not A Home”; and watching him move into the decade’s latter half alternating up-tempo numbers (“Give Me the Reason”) and his real strength, ballads (wedding staple “Here and Now”). The pre-eminent singer of his generation, Vandross owned R&B; in the 1980s, and every reason why is clearly laid out here.