It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
It didn't have to happen like this. As the story goes, Clive Davis first heard Whitney Houston perform at a club in 1983, when she was 20. He was not the first who hoped to make a star of her. Labels had sought her out since middle school. But her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, had carefully and thoughtfully managed her daughter's career throughout her teens, making sure that she graduated from high school. This was a time when patience was still possible. Houston's eponymous debut album wouldn't come out for two years, and it wasn't an immediate hit. But then came the singles: the polished "You Give Good Love," the instantly familiar "Saving All My Love For You," the MTV-ready "How Will I Know." By the end of 1985, Houston had established herself as one of the decade's most promising crossover stars.
After all, diversity wasn't yet seen as a virtue in the mid 1980s, with radio stations, magazines and MTV still quite segregated. The time was right for a star capable of playing to all crowds and Houston's wholesome glamour fit the bill. Her 1987 album Whitney set all sorts of sales records, including ones that put her in the same conversation as the Beatles, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen. Whitney accentuated all of her debut's most appealing moves: The ballads were classy and polished, the dance tracks joyfully modern. "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" and "So Emotional" were ubiquitous that year, while "Didn't We Almost Have it All" epitomized the splendor of the 1980s ballad. Despite its crossover aspirations, there were gestures toward the world had nurtured her as well: a fine cover of the Isley Brothers' "For the Love of You," as well as "I Know Him so Well," a duet with her mother. Listening to it all 25 years later, in light of Houston's passing, it's difficult not to long for the album's youthful effervescence. The scars were imagined, the highs still rising. This was a young woman entering a world not of her own making, taking those first, confident steps toward discovering just how gigantic it would allow her to become.
The Early Back-Up Gig
Houston grew up in a musical environment — not only was her mother a gospel star, but her cousins were Dionne and DeeDee Warwick, and her godmother was Darlene Love of the Ronettes. One of Houston's early gigs was as a back-up vocalist on Chaka Khan's hit "I'm Every Woman" (which she would later cover herself). Perhaps if Houston had been born in a different era, Khan would have represented the apex of possibilities. Khan was one of the most versatile performers of the 1970s and early 1980s, a major star capable of belting out diva-size torch songs, getting nasty over a funk grinder or commanding an ecstatic disco rhythm. Released in 1981, What'cha is one of her more interesting albums, especially on the blissful title cut and "I Know You, I Live You." Over the course of this strong, synth-driven record, she covers the Beatles, jams with Dizzy Gillespie and generally sounds like she's having a ball.
An Oeuvre Oddity
An oddity of the Houston oeuvre. Material began in the late 1970s as a No Wave band fronted by bassist Bill Laswell and an ever-changing cast of collaborators. In 1982, he and keyboardist Michael Beinhorn released One Drop, an ambitious collection of machine-drum dance funk. Among the collaborators were Nona Hendryx, Archie Shepp, members of Chic and a young Houston. It was the first time she was ever the featured vocalist on a recording. She leads a cover of Soft Machine's soft, sweet "Memories," a reprieve from the rest of the collection's electro fascination. It's clear that she had yet to gain the confidence to use her powerful voice. She sounds disarmingly crisp and pure atop Material's minimalist arrangement, each of her verses met with a jagged response from Shepp's saxophone.
Passing the Torch
When Mary J. Blige emerged in the early 1990s, she was portrayed as the anti-Houston, a gritty antidote to how stately, composed and polished pop R&B had become. Houston's ascension had predated the arrival of hip-hop to the mainstream; Blige, on the other hand, had the brashness of a young MC. But during the 1990s, Blige slowly evolved into a diva in Houston's image. This growth culminated in 1999, when Blige released Mary, an album of '70s-influenced grown-up soul. A sense of hope coursed through these songs, as Blige found comfort, power and, most of all, space within the album's sparse arrangements. Later that year, she performed with Houston on VH1's Divas special, one of the legend's many acts of torch-passing.
The Diva’s Diva
Soul stalwart Kelly Price has a strange, new claim to fame: She was on-stage with Houston during her last-ever public appearance, the two singing a duet of "Yes, Jesus Loves Me" at a pre-Grammy celebration. Price has long been the diva's diva, a brilliant singer and songwriter admired more by her peers than the record-buying public. She was a frequent collaborator with Houston, including a guest spot on the latter's 1998 single "Heartbreak Hotel." Price's 2003 album Priceless was a sophisticated, lush affair, similar to the drama-tinged, mid-tempo R&B of Houston's later albums. Priceless is rich with the triumphs and struggles of growing (slightly) older — it is a captivating, memoiristic record. Alongside ascendant tracks such as "Sister" (featuring fellow Houston collaborator and devotee Faith Evans), there is the brilliant, bittersweet "How Does it Feel," when destiny comes undone.
The Unlikely Interpreter
The fine, luscious textures and cliffhanger drama of contemporary R&B have inspired an unlikely new generation of bedroom producers. Among them, New York's How to Dress Well offers one of the more bewitching interpretations, turning the tropes of radio soul into something swirly, ethereal and half-awake. If Houston-era R&B was a celebration of the self — dancing one's way toward bliss, singing one's soul free — than there's something cerebral and distant about HTDW. There are gorgeous songs buried deep within "Ready for the World" and "Can't See My Own Face," between the echo and the ambience. It's a challenge to hear the past his way, the hits of the 1980s and '90s deconstructed as euphoric bliss and disarming ruptures.