Happy 35th Anniversary to Chaka Khan’s eponymous fourth solo studio album Chaka Khan, originally released November 17, 1982.
Vocalist Chaka Khan (born Yvette Stevens) first came to prominence as the frontwoman of Rufus. A daring collective of combustible talent, Rufus produced a host of recordings—starting with Rufus (1973)—that trekked through the realms of rock, R&B and pop. Khan remained with Rufus throughout the course of the 1970s; the Quincy Jones piloted Masterjam (1979) concluded her full-time tenure within the group. In fact, one year prior to Masterjam, Khan’s inaugural solo record Chaka (1978) was sanctioned by Warner Bros. Records. Home to the perennial feminist manifesto “I’m Every Woman,” the LP evinced that Khan had the goods sans Rufus. But Chaka also introduced a new player into Khan’s career too: the late, but legendary producer/arranger Arif Mardin.
In Khan, Mardin had finally found his true aural inspiration. For Khan, she now had a creative equal, someone with an exceptional awareness of song structure to adequately frame her singular voice. However, their artistic union did not equate to major crossover clout for Khan’s two post-Chaka follow-ups: Naughty (1980) and What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me (1981). Regardless, these albums were dynamic exercises in the modern rhythm and blues method, becoming instant classics within that marketplace, pop radio be damned.
Khan’s ninth year of activity in popular music, 1982, turned out to be her busiest. She recorded and released two LPs in that same 12-month cycle: Echoes of an Era and Chaka Khan.
The former, handled by Elektra Records in early 1982, put Khan’s jazz chops on display via a cache of standards (i.e., “Them There Eyes,” “I Loves You, Porgy”). Promoted as a collaboration versus a Khan vehicle, she joined a decorated crop of jazz musicians on the long player: Chick Corea (piano), Stanley Clarke (acoustic bass), Lenny White (drums, producer), Joe Henderson (tenor sax), Freddie Hubbard (flugelhorn, trumpet). It started no fires chartwise, but Echoes of an Era hit its mark in further refining Khan’s gifts. She headed into the sessions for her fourth album quite prepared. She and Mardin were tracking the fast changes in R&B and black pop—it was either adapt or die. Khan wasn't afraid of change and subsequently Chaka Khan is a testament to her inventive concentration.
Entries like “Tearin’ It Up,” “Slow Dancin’” (with Rick James) and “Pass It On (A Sure Thing) (Pasalo Esta Seguro)” were piping hot, their blends of soul and dance, electronic and non-electronic ingredients coalescing to form something new, something cutting edge. There’s a bit of pop playfulness—think Donna Summer or Diana Ross in their Geffen and RCA eras respectively—with “Best in the West.” Its galloping groove, cheeky guitar chucking and coquette wordplay showcase Khan’s humor. Then, there’s her gorgeously grown-up cover of Michael Jackson’s “Got to Be There,” seemingly positioned to become an urban radio standard, which, of course, it did upon its election as a single.
The original songs for Chaka Khan were commissioned from a variety of sources. Bunny Sigler, Mark McMillan, Loz Netto and Colin Campsie were just four of the lyricists accounted for here. Some hailed from a strictly R&B background, others, from a pop and rock perspective. But, what they all brought to Chaka Khan were words that Khan could interpret convincingly. Their contributions—“Tearin’ It Up,” “So Not to Worry,” “Slow Dancin’” and “Twisted”—are arguably some of the stronger selections on this eponymous affair.
Yet, the defining moment of Chaka Khan is “Be Bop Medley.” The scripted contents of this cut are six revisited jazz staples: Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House,” “Lou Stein’s “East of Suez (Come On Sailor),” Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy (I Wanna Play),” Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite,” Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma,” John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” How are these songs executed in gestalt? By, literally, having a meeting between two Khans, vocally—thanks to Mardin’s production savvy. On the track, Khan’s non-jazz approach faces off with her vocalese/improvisational stylings. This “battle of the voices” transpires over a field of electro-hop rhythms, funk, rock and (bits of) synth-pop. Nowhere else in Khan’s discography can a listener find a union of the past and present in popular music so fearlessly and synoptically communicated.
Chaka Khan hit shop shelves on November 17, 1982. Barring its first hit (“Got to Be There,” US R&B #5), the album and its subsequent second offering (“Tearin’ It Up,” US R&B #48)” fell on deaf ears. Justice would be granted to Chaka Khan in 1984 though. Khan received two nominations—and wins—for “Be Bop Medley” (“Best Vocal Arrangement for Two or More Voices”) and Chaka Khan (“Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female”). Her third Grammy nomination that same year was for “Ain’t Nobody,” culled from the brief Rufus reunion captured on the double album Stompin’ at the Savoy – Live (1983).
“Ain’t Nobody,” a sizable hit, prepared Khan for her greatest crossover success with I Feel for You (1984), but that long player’s usage of dance and electro-R&B stretched back to Chaka Khan, the apogee of her first four solo albums. Even with the later recordings that followed, nothing matched her eponymous effort’s ability to bridge the “old” and (then) “new” elements in black music. And though Khan’s fourth set doesn’t usually come to mind offhand, once someone has experienced Chaka Khan, its jams linger long past its conclusion.