And the Funk Still Lingers On: Chaka Khan’s 1982 Eponymous Masterpiece
In an era where the R&B landscape festered in the wake of disco’s tragic collapse, the musical union between Chaka Khan and her producer, the late great Arif Mardin was more than crucial. Khan already laid her Midas touch on the music scene as the fiery lead singer of the Chicago multiracial outfit, Rufus. Vivacious and impulsive, she ushered in a new era of female soul that reflected chic sensuality and bold-and-foxy dynamism in black womanhood during the 1970s. In his own right, Mardin was a master of pop-soul music, with an affinity for its emergent and enduring nuances. He was known as an accomplished arranger and orchestrator with credentials in classical music, but it was his appreciation for black music that put him in a class of his own.
Over the course of her first three seminal recordings after breaking from Rufus — 1978’s Chaka, 1980’s Naughty, and 1981’s What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me — Arif Mardin embraced Khan’s mightily broad and flexible voice as a central element to his indispensably varied musical templates, just as he’d done with Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, and Roberta Flack before. Together, the influential Chicago powerhouse and legendary Turkish producer had a knack for thinking out of the box and exploring daring territory. By the time Khan’s fourth and eponymous album, Chaka Khan arrived in the fall of 1982, their shape-shifting blend of thumping funk, revved-up soul, and white-hot disco styles stood as a towering signature in all of black pop. Their magic showed no signs of waning either.
As if the colossal, genre-hopping pleasures that made up Khan’s 1981 triumph, What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me didn’t already put her unpredictable artistry over the top, its audacious follow-up certainly made it seem like a small inkling of what was to come. On the surface, it would be easy for one to assert that Chaka Khan is nothing more than a logical, if not direct expansion of its superlative predecessor. However, in accounting all of its musical and sonic pulses, Khan and Mardin moved their ubiquitous pop-soul touch forward. “Forward” wouldn’t have been a limp title for the album, as Mardin sidesteps the traditional, large-scale R&B orchestrations of her previous work, in favor of a bass-driven, electronic sound that largely informed much of the electro-funk styles of the era. Make no mistake, though, Khan’s impulsive funk personality isn’t bogged down by the innovative textures of the production’s dance-pop and electro-funk sensibilities.
In fact, Chaka Khan just may be the most thorough funk-oriented entry from her solo period. Stylistically, the album cohesively explores a broader range of settings and moods, primarily within the funk realm. As on her previous outings, Mardin supplies Khan with several high-caliber musicians from pop and R&B circles, including bassist Anthony Jackson, saxophonist Michael Brecker, guitarist Paul Jackson Jr., and Average White Band cohorts, drummer Steve Ferrone and singer Hamish Stuart.
The most transcendent element of this album is indebted to Khan’s versatile and uncontained instrument: her voice. Elastic and deeply emotive, Khan has been known for employing extraordinary emotional range in whatever she sings. Throughout the album, she dwells inside every mood, quirk, rhythm, and tempo, reinforcing her prowess as a distinctive vocal stylist with serious musical intent.
The album opens with its energetic single, “Tearin’ It Up” (US R&B #48), a sultry electro-funk number that boasts Khan’s beds of seductive vocal work with Hamish Stuart and Alvin Fields providing subtle harmonic blends under and over Khan’s lead. “Slow Dancin’” continues the electro-funk synergy with Khan and the punk-funk master, Rick James sharing a spontaneous duet under an infectious, slow-driving groove that is reminiscent of James’ best work. Mardin cleverly employs subtle Country touches (complete with a fiddle, steel guitar, and even an uncanny cowboy western gunshot effect) in “Best in the West,” an ultra-funky tale on a woman’s desire for an imperious man’s scandalous love. The album’s lone pop cover, “Got To Be There” (US Pop #67, R&B #5) finds Khan taking on Michael Jackson’s dreamy original with total finesse, never overpowering or obstructing its gentle, innocent grace.
Where Chaka Khan’s A-side expands on the electronic funk brew that What Cha’ Gonna Do for Me conjured, its B-side homes in on some of Khan’s most musically challenging and experimental work to date. Right off the bat, Mardin dips into Khan’s jazz foundation with “Be Bop Medley.” A downright smoldering mix of jazz improvisation and modern funk, “Be Bop Medley” easily rivals her other classic homage to bebop pioneers, “And the Melody Still Lingers On (A Night in Tunisia).” “A Night in Tunisia” may stand as Khan’s iconoclastic jazz breakthrough that invited wider demographics to discover golden age jazz, while also introducing its ancestors to a new stratosphere, but “Be Bop Medley” extends the invitation even further. Khan madly slithers and scats her way through standards from Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Tadd Dameron, Lou Stein, and Dizzy Gillespie with neck-breaking precision and unprecedented focus, while adopting self-penned lyrics to the interpretations. Jazz legend Betty Carter once tipped her hat to Khan’s masterful vocal performance and artistic venture.
Things take a darker turn with the evocative ballad, “Twisted.” Written by Colin Campsie and George McFarlane, “Twisted” flirts with brooding new wave flourishes over an understated, electro-funk groove. While it’s clear Khan is effectively singing of a promising romance that is strained over the misfortunes of drug addiction, the song’s devastating lyrics pointedly allude to Khan’s past struggles with drug addiction and fame: “So the medication’s still the devil in me / So into make believe, your smile I see / Out of me there’s a voice which keeps calling / I’m hiding alone, crazy I know, I am tied to your strings and I’m twisted.”
The Mark McMillan-written “So Not to Worry” updates Khan’s traditional funk and soul dynamism with a rather heartbreaking tale on unrequited love to boot. “Pass It On (A Sure Thing) (Pasa Lo Esta Seguro)” is a fine amalgamation of Rufus’ signature funk flair and Khan’s post-disco buoyancy, although it passes as the only real filler moment in the album’s indomitable string of highpoints.
Many Khan loyalists (or more aptly, “Chaka-holics”) and music enthusiasts alike praise Chaka Khan with the highest esteem, and it’s difficult to argue against its cult appeal. Perhaps its slight recognition and obscure status in Khan’s varied canon can be attributed solely to the fact that Khan’s parent label, Warner Bros. hasn’t bothered to reissue it domestically (a crime that will hopefully be corrected soon enough). The album represents a grand encapsulation of the sophisticated funk and soul signature Khan and Arif Mardin apotheosized for the burgeoning post-disco scene, as well as a sea change in Khan’s artistic path.
While Chaka Khan proved to be a milestone in Khan’s artistic career, it failed to change the context of her dusky commercial showing. The album stalled at a dismal #52 on Billboard’s Pop chart, while reaching its R&B chart at #5. It’s obvious Khan’s daring black pop ambitions didn’t exactly align with the streamlined crossover aspirations of the pop landscape. Warner Brothers certainly made mistakes in promoting the album, especially when it came to deciding single releases (they oddly released “Got to Be There” as the album’s lead single, undermining her more upbeat material.) Still, Chaka Khan was recognized for its artistic achievements, as Khan scored her first pair of Grammy Awards in 1984 as a solo artist in the ‘Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female’ and ‘Best Vocal Arrangement for Two or More Voices’ categories.
Novices and pop music commentators will constantly subscribe to the notion that Khan hit her apex when her sound matched the moment and fell drastically into commercialized synth-pop excesses with 1984’s I Feel For You, but 1982’s Chaka Khan deserves to be her true pièce de résistance — the rare moment she and Arif Mardin flipped the gutsy flavors of the funk and moved it further than imagined.