Quiet storm, a Black radio format that developed in the late-’70s around pebble-smooth R&B balladry, is one of the rare subgenre names that suggests the ideal context for itself. Play “Choosey Lover” by the Isley Brothers or even Smokey Robinson’s original “Quiet Storm.” Notice how the skies in those songs are bruised with dark purple clouds, thunder brewing inside them. Indoors, sealed away from the weather, someone sheds their coat and it forms a soft vortex on a bare wood floor. There is a haze of steam in the air, the sound of bathwater running in another room. This is the lifestyle of comfort and intimacy that the genre implicitly sold to its listeners, soul music one could sink into after a long day of work, like a couch or a bath or a steady long-term relationship. The format particularly excelled at simulating the slow-motion atmosphere of romance, a physical and mental connection so strong it could make the molecules in the air around it lag. So even if you didn’t own a nice couch or a large bathtub, you could turn on the radio and settle into the swoon of the music itself, and find yourself drawn into a desire deep enough to seem closer to unconscious dreaming than physical reality.
In the mid-’80s, when Anita Baker was shopping for songs for her second album, she kept asking the publishing houses for “fireside love songs with jazz overtones”—in other words, quiet storm songs, songs that have fireplaces flickering inside of them. Baker wanted a whole album in this mode so the mood wouldn’t be disturbed by the more aggressive and mechanical pop-R&B productions that were in vogue at the time. She returned with five compositions, adding three more she either co-wrote or wrote herself, all of which ended up forming a kind of album-length suite of affirmation. The songs bore titles like “You Bring Me Joy” and “Same Ole Love (365 Days a Year),” tributes to the endurance of love and happiness, to the comfort of repetition when the things being repeated are shared warmth and tenderness. She named the album Rapture, and true to the title, the music is always floating a few inches above the ground, as if being spirited away by the depth of the devotion it feels.
Baker’s taste at the time was like a crosshatching of the music she grew up with as a young girl in Detroit. She learned to sing in church; her first memory of herself as a singer, in fact, takes place in one, standing at a podium, singing a gospel song that a family member taught her so she wouldn’t fall asleep during the service. As Baker grew older, though, her love of gospel would merge with a deepening interest in jazz, her attention lingering on singers whose voices twisted like corkscrews, like her idol, Sarah Vaughan. In the early ’80s, Baker sang for a local Detroit disco/funk group called Chapter 8, who made one record before their label dropped them. Disillusioned, she drifted away from the music industry, waiting tables and briefly working as a receptionist for a law firm. She only returned to singing when she was courted by a new label called Beverly Glen, with whom she released her debut solo album, The Songstress, in 1983.
The Songstress was a mild success on the R&B charts, with one single, an ethereal jazz-inflected slow jam called “Angel,” reaching the Top 5. Baker, seeking more control over her next project, signed with Elektra Records and named herself the executive producer of Rapture, the implication being that even if she didn’t personally write every song on Rapture, there was something personal in her selection of material, in the more seamless environment she was designing for the listener. As the record starts, Baker’s voice—a rich, deep contralto that sounds much older than her 27 years of age—wavers upward through clouds of chords and drums to deliver, with utmost conviction and precision, a line that sets the record’s intentions: “With all my heart/I love you baby.” This is how the first track on Rapture, “Sweet Love,” begins, and it’s enveloping as a symphony, the kind of music that floods every sense. Baker seems affected by it herself throughout the record, sometimes slipping into vocalese as the songs advance, words melting into vowels, phrases going liquid then solid again. The sort-of title track “Caught Up in the Rapture” starts off in this wordless delirium—”ba ba baya ba ba ba bah,” Baker sings before each verse starts, as if the lyrics have to form out of the unshaped clay of the feeling.
Rapture didn’t align with the electro-R&B that was de rigueur in 1986 pop or the increasingly mechanistic and sexually-unbridled explorations of the genre’s most prominent svengalis, Prince and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. On its arrival, the album was dubbed retronuevo by the writer and critic Nelson George, who was trying to emphasize the older Black musical forms that Baker’s songs were rooted in. On the one hand, the emotions that rocketed through them felt enormous and electric enough to be gospel—hear the immensity with which Baker sings “myyyy joy” in “You Bring Me Joy.” But their expression was so controlled and stylized, painted in instrument by instrument, that it just as easily brought to mind the jazz, fusion, and soft R&B that preceded it.
Despite these traces of retro in the music, very little of Rapture sounded old by the standards of 1986. Its production is state of the art; if it were a sculpture it would be the kind where you couldn’t tell if hands had ever touched it. Each note touches down as an isolated unit of clarity, though the instruments are also steeped in enough reverb to sound like they recently walked out of a lake, their footfalls wrapped in wet echoes. The piano’s presence is so simultaneously thick and diffuse in the mix that hearing it feels like being embraced by a cloud of an ex-lover’s perfume. Every other instrument, whether percussion, bass, or guitar, acts as a texture, another beat in the riverlike rhythm, as on “Same Ole Love,” where the effect makes for a little perpetual motion machine of a love song. And though Baker expressed her own antipathy toward synthesizers around the time of Rapture’s release (“The sound is so thin,” she said), there are synths all over the album, and when they mix with the acoustic pianos they encase their tones in a layer of crystal.
Which is one of the reasons why Rapture as an R&B album doesn’t feel like an argument for nostalgia or authenticity as much as it does for continuity. It is not necessarily trying to emulate old soul music, even though it is certainly music with an old soul. Instead, styles from the past—soul music’s bottled feeling, funk’s unhurried step, disco and post-disco’s lush grooves, gospel’s power, jazz’s curiosity—are brought into the present and combined in such a way that one’s sense of time outside of the songs ceases to matter, creating a dream space where all of these displaced musical forms can blossom simultaneously and entangle with each other. Rapture is like a home Baker built, a hearth, a warm safe place where both the mystery of love and the history of Black music can be both explored and preserved.
Rapture’s agnosticism toward the contemporaneous intrigues of pop production made it oddly flexible across different formats and charts; it’s quiet storm trembled onto Adult Contemporary stations like a weather pattern itself, and the record eventually lodged itself in the Billboard Top 40. The presence of Baker’s voice in my childhood home was so constant as to verge on ambient, another piece of furniture in the house, or, in the period before I knew what furniture was, another murky voice cooing in the air above me. Thirty years later, I saw Anita Baker perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, one of the stops on her farewell tour in 2018. Her stage presence was surprisingly exuberant, more so than the narcotic pull of her voice would necessarily suggest. She swung her arms around, grasping handfuls of air or strumming it as if she were able to touch her own music as it streamed by. But when she opened her mouth to sing, time collapsed, and I was the same age I was the moment I first regarded Baker’s voice with awe, thinking she was like a magician pulling silk scarves from her mouth.
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