Editor’s Note: The Albumism staff has selected what we believe to be the 100 Most Dynamic Debut Albums Ever Made, representing a varied cross-section of genres, styles and time periods. Click “Next Album” below to explore each album or view the full album index here.
Before becoming a singular phenomenon in romantic soul, Anita Baker made her first stint on the music front as a lead vocalist in the Detroit soul unit, Chapter 8. The group signed with the short-lived label, Ariola and released their self-titled debut in 1979, with modest success. That same year, they were dropped from the label when Arista Records acquired it. Legend has it that Arista executives weren’t exactly sold on Baker as a vocalist and didn’t believe she had “star potential.”
Humbled, Baker hit the pavement as a working-class woman in Detroit, pursuing jobs as a waitress and receptionist at a law firm. In 1982, she received a call from Otis Smith, a former associate who signed Chapter 8 to Ariola, convincing her to refocus her gifts under his then newly-instated imprint in Los Angeles, Beverly Glen Music. She eventually signed to the independent label and began working on her debut.
The resulting album, The Songstress, was conceived at a rather transitional period in black music. Gargantuan funk bands, thrilling disco divas, and debonair vocal groups either stayed afloat or withered at the dusk of the post-disco era. Synth-heavy funk, crossover pop sensations and hip-hop made its way to the forefront of the culture, ushering in a new era of trends and influences to come. Interestingly enough, smooth, stylish, and urbane currents of the quiet storm format populated the airwaves and the marketplace, after the harsh backlash of the disco era. Baker certainly understood the changes and persevered. Instead of relying on trends of the day, she built her sound with a sheen mix of soul, jazz, and gospel, bolstering a sublime benchmark for the smooth soul scene.
The soothing one-two punch of “Angel” and “You’re the Best Thing Yet” still stops you in your tracks with their unwavering grace and delicate conviction. The conception of longing desire and reconciled love is bared out on the breezy “Feel the Need” and the cool-as-ice sway of “Will You Be Mine.” Sacred affirmations gleam all over “Sometimes” and “No More Tears,” while the white-hot funk strut of “Do You Believe Me” and “Squeeze Me” embodies Baker’s spontaneity and flair.
While The Songstress wasn’t the commercial whirlwind Baker and indie label Beverly Glen Music envisioned when it hit stores in the spring of 1983, it gained immediate appeal in several R&B markets nationwide. Because of Beverly Glen’s limited distribution and financial woes, the album quickly fell into obscurity for nearly a decade. Baker later asserted that she never received royalties from the album, eventually pursuing a messy legal battle with Otis Smith and departing from the Beverly Glen imprint in 1985.
Elektra Records obtained the rights to the album at the height of Baker’s reinvigorated career, resulting in its 1991 reissue with new artwork and minimal remixing. This time, its soulful charm and timeless beauty reemerged to a welcoming legion of fans and music lovers, who initially figured she debuted with her 1986 sophomore blockbuster, Rapture. Despite its embattled history, The Songstress serves as an important phase in not only R&B music, but in Baker’s artistry, long before she enraptured the entire music world forever.