For as long as Luther has sufficed to separate Mr. Vandross from all others bearing his name he has been the modern male soul singer, possibly the last of a disappearing breed in a profession already rife with high risk and high mortality. The historical roll count of male soul men equally and readily identifiable by first name—Sam, Jackie, Otis, Al, Marvin, Teddy, James, Curtis, and now curiously, if momentarily we pray, Maxwell—offers a sobering and fatalistic prognosis for Black men possessing what a friend once called the Voice of God, a gift obviously too incendiary for mere mortal coils. As was once said of male jazz singers, the modern era sees little necessity for male soul classicists, or more pointedly, Black men who feel very deeply. So I Know, his debut for Virgin, affirms his triumphs over time and outrageous fortune on the slippery slopes of the African American romance song.
Luther’s greatest drawback has been coming along when there were few exemplary soul songs being writ ten—hiphop lyricists having taken up the reins of that dark horse—and fewer people still who could competently produce them by comparison with the Motown and Philly International teams. His former label Epic’s competing release of Always & Forever—The Classics compiles career-making gems like “A House Is Not a Home,” “Creepin’,” and “Superstar /Until You Come Back to Me,” demonstrating his unfailing taste in covers and the outstanding craft he deploys in bringing unabashed concert bravura into the studio. In soul-historical terms Luther’s roomy and decorously boomy voice is a late-stage evolution ary project designed with buppy seduction scenarios in mind—a recombinant brew of Nat Cole’s preternatural polish, Otis Redding’s Pentecostal fervor, Marvin Gaye’s homeboy cosmopolitanism that in tandem with his diva airs has never been too funky, too poppy, or too campy to panic anyone. The balancing act has always been astounding, and now that Puffy has made glitz a Black Thing again, may even be hip, kinda-sorta.
Vandross’s heart is clearly with the old songs, but his fortune lies in making nice with today’s marketplace without getting too new on all the Luther loyalists out there. It’s a slow dance fraught with dangers and de lights. On I Know, he makes a coproduction with Masters at Work, maestros of last year’s Nuyorican Soul omnibus, seem like a stretch with an apologia of “Wait a minute, let’s try something different, this is Luther with the Masters at Work.” What follows ain’t hardly hardstep drum’n ‘bass and certainly not acid-house, but a bass-driven dance vehicle that will doubtlessly inspire acrobatics on the floor at Vinyl this weekend. Since Luther has spent a portion of his career pooh-poohing rumors of gaiety, you have to wonder if club music’s sexual orientation stigma explains the cautionary note upfront. Similarly, a lyric from “Religion”—”Little Billy likes his best friend Jack/How in the world could he be like that/Mama and Henry wanna have a chat/Boy you need religion”—seems even more extreme unless you read it as a wink of tongue in cheek, and since can’t nobody do closet as gothically as upwardly mobilized Black celebs, or fear of hiphop, for that matter, we’re left to our own devices as to what’s-the-deal-ly-Yo. Of course, any song that also speaks of folk getting some of that “How’d I get on Ricki Lake religion” clearly got jokes-ing on its mind more than jubilation per se.
Still, this Luther album mostly sounds like every other Luther album you own, which, depending on your take on things, either adds up to remarkable consistency or fear of expansion. On his duet with Cassandra Wilson, “I’m Only Human,” (echoes of Morrissey and “How Soon Is Now” only for the insane), Marcus Miller provides a track straight outta the sentimental side of Dr. Dre. Wilson provides butta from the basso-profundo dimension of her register and Bob James’s sparse and winsome Fender Rhodes solo reminds that soul was also once the province of extraordinary instrumentalists (and designing minimalists). Ditto for Stevie Wonder’s harmonica appearance on “I Know,” a melancholy Lutherian essay on domestic bliss and anxiety. “Nights in Harlem,” featuring MC Precise, is this album’s Proust move, a remembrance of things past that goes back to the days when Smokey Robinson and the Miracles came to town and “Tears of a Clown” was Luther’s favorite song. Precise’s rhymes manage the admirable feat of nostalgia and contemporaneity without broaching cheesiness or science fiction. For this reason, Darkchild’s included remix of the same jam with Guru in tow seems especially unnecessary, and as a closer, diminishing of the excellence found here overall.
Counting his transition from brilliant background singer to one-in-a-million shot breakout soloist, Vandross has been a long-distance runner in the soul man’s race against the clock, fashion, and youthful exuberance, a game where neither fate nor mental stability have ever appeared the hand maidens of self-creation. For this reason, only real men, whatever their elective affinities, dare sing soul music. Three shouts of Viva Luther! seem in order.