Once upon a time Gladys Knight had the Pips, Anita Baker had Chapter 8, Luther Vandross had Change, Patti Labelle had The Bluebelles, Diana Ross was a Supreme before she became the Boss, and Chaka Khan had Rufus. Critics try to break her career up into three sections; lead singer of Rufus; singer of the best version of “I Feel For You” and hot ’80s commodity of a fixed reputation in no need of improving itself. Her backlog of classic tunes are so deep in collective memory they have become assumptions of pop culture. But Kanye West who chipmunked “Through The Fire” and “Miss The Water” collaborator Meshell Ndegocello plus a score of soul singers from Vesta to Fantasia bear out the gravity of Ms.Khan’s voice beyond any frozen museum of ’80s hits.
Funk This comes after 2004’s jazz standard collection Classikhan and 1998’s funk originals Come 2 My House. She played it straighter among the brassy arrangements of film songs and jazz classics. Those renditions had none of the Stevie Wonderized funk of her “A Night In Tunisia” tribute to the song’s author Dizzy Gillespie. The Prince-produced Come 2 My House was a critical success for its visceral grooves and epic song structures that fused Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, hip-hop and funk, but the album’s commercial potential stunted because of their unwillingness to tour. Ironically some 10 years later it is Prince’s former employees Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis working as producers of her newest funk odyssey. Their chemistry makes fire out of 13 songs that Khan’s voice manipulates like a horn, a gospel choir and perfect-pitched winds of a storm. Her lungs are almost supernatural in their strength and technique that can own the long-winded demands of a victory song like “Angel” or “Back In The Day” where she mellifluously scats over her own choruses. Divine covers of Jimi and Prince delightfully surprise as “Castles Made Of Sand” and “Sign Of The Times” get Chakdafied. She riffs, moans and enunciates the words of both songs in her searing contralto that burns up the notes of her “Hail To The Wrong” trademarked vocal run. A mighty duet with Mary J.Blige threatens to stop the offending male subject of the song from disrespecting them by their double team sistah shouts. All that soulful hollering exorcises all the bad feelings from the relationship leaving Chaka and Mary standing as two winners in the he-done-me-wrong school of singing. Love is better on a different vocal pairing with Michael Mcdonald, the classic “You Belong To Me” is a sassy but classy homage to a tireless song. She even makes time to re-do her benchmark material with Rufus and brings Tony Maiden back for volcanic versions of “Packed My Bags” and “You Got The Love.” The seasoned richness of all that fortified funk is hedonistic aural satisfaction and a bona fide attestation of why Khan’s voice will always matter.