Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Chaka Khan [extended]

  • Rags to Rufus [ABC, 1974] B
  • Rufusized [ABC, 1974] B+
  • Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan [ABC, 1975] B
  • Ask Rufus [ABC, 1977] C+
  • Chaka [Warner Bros., 1978] B
  • Masterjam [MCA, 1979] B-
  • Naughty [Warner Bros., 1980] B+
  • What Cha' Gonna Do for Me [Warner Bros., 1981] B-
  • Chaka Khan [Warner Bros., 1982] B+
  • Live--Stompin' at the Savoy [Warner Bros., 1983] B+
  • I Feel for You [Warner Bros., 1984] C+
  • Destiny [Warner Bros., 1986] B
  • Life Is a Dance: The Remix Project [Warner Bros., 1989] C+
  • Epiphany: The Best of Chaka Khan Volume One [Reprise, 1996] A-
  • Funk This [Burgundy, 2007] **

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Rufus: Rags to Rufus [ABC, 1974]
With Chaka Khan pushed up front this looks like L.A.'s answer to Tower of Power--white funk players behind black singer. Chopswise neither the hornless five-piece band nor the horny three-octave voice is up to Oakland's pride, but I prefer the attitude, which is to admit your limitations and keep it simple. Maybe no one would have noticed if Stevie Wonder hadn't given them "Tell Me Something Good." But he did. B

Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan: Rufusized [ABC, 1974]
Chaka's got a mostly new, mostly black band, and it makes a difference, especially in the in-house songwriting, with hooks courtesy guitarist Tony Maiden. The lyrics are worth catching, too, especially the answer to "Rocket Man," in which the wife croons "The universe is calling you" without a hint of sarcasm. Guess that's what assuming the spiritual mannerisms of Stevie and Aretha--launching your voice into free fall, I mean--can bring you to. B+

Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan: Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan [ABC, 1975]
No doubt they think they're getting classy, but I think they're getting cute--compare the hip-skipping "On Time" to last year's booty-bumping "Rufusized." They're also starting to keep the composing royalties in the family. Exception, Bee Gees Go Home Division: Chaka's up-and-over "Jive Talking." B

Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan: Ask Rufus [ABC, 1977]
So Chaka's turning into a "sophisticated song stylist." Just what we needed. What she needs is sophisticated songs. They never learn. C+

Chaka [Warner Bros., 1978]
Arif Mardin and the usual En Why studio funkies lay down a heavier bottom for Ms. Rufus than her El Lay street bottom for Ms. Rufus than her El Lay street players have in years. She's expressing herself by looking for songs, too, but while every one gives her something to say, only Ashford & Simpson's "I'm Every Woman" is up to her human potential. B

Rufus & Chaka: Masterjam [MCA, 1979]
Relieving me of ugly suspicions that the secret of Off the Wall wasn't Michael Jackson but producer Quincy Jones and songwriter Rod Temperton, the same pair pitches in here with much slighter results. In fact, they'd get exactly the kind of demi-jazz you'd expect Quincy Jones to substitute for funk. After all, the band has aspired to demi-jazz for years. Now what I want to know is whether the singer aspires to Flora Purim--the signs are mixed, but her sliding rhythms make me fear the worst. B-

Naughty [Warner Bros., 1980]
Although she's grown into her jazzy pretensions in a distinctively pop way, replete with borderline banality and wretched excess, her distinctive pleasures aren't available on the pop surface. You have to concentrate to hear her outcomp Leon Pendarvis on "Clouds" or remold the melody of "So Naughty" or bop the funk on "All Night's All Right." But what you're concentrating on isn't the song per se--it's transcendence of the song. Like I said, she's grown into her jazzy pretensions. B+

What Cha' Gonna Do for Me [Warner Bros., 1981]
Between the self-affirmative signals--writing more, steady band, you know--and the "Night in Tunisia" cover, this is where she's supposed to come into her own, but the real clue is the leadoff "We Can Work It Out," a great song she does nothing for because what she's really after is pop credibility. Although I've never thought of her as a crucial funk artist, without her usual quota of popping bass and mother-popcorn guitar her pop is soft. Nancy Wilson herself could have covered "Night in Tunisia." B-

Chaka Khan [Warner Bros., 1982]
Her fans, who like everything she does, really like this one. It's never dumb, and achieves the oft-promised funk-bebop fusion with some spritz. But her fans don't care that not a single song catches like, for instance, "Tell Me Something Good" or "Once You Get Started" or even "I'm Every Woman." Nonfans will. Or rather, they won't. B+

Rufus and Chaka Khan: Live--Stompin' at the Savoy [Warner Bros., 1983]
Especially since "Ain't Nobody," the killer hit her last album cried out for, comes courtesy of Rufus's main man Hawk Wolinski, this reunion is like a gift--for three sides live and one studio she's finally free of her freedom. It's not the '70s best-of a cynical admirer like myself might wish, but the material is stronger than anything she's compiled with Arif Mardin for sure, and "Ain't That Peculiar" is a complete natural. But beyond "Ain't Nobody," Wolinski contributes nothing special songwise. Which I guess is one reason she wanted her freedom. B+

I Feel for You [Warner Bros., 1984]
Physically, her voice is as splendid as the rest of her, and as usual she's coasting on it, A classic single for the second year in a row and almost all the musical interest (as opposed to attraction) on the album-of-the-same-name is provided by John Robie, Melle Mel, etc. Feel for her? C+

Destiny [Warner Bros., 1986]
Though supervising producer Arif Mardin lends an appearance of unity to the credits, the eight-count-'em-eight coproducers take it away, leaving yet another candid concatenation of crossover wannabees. Those who treasure Chaka's quirkiness will object--the Coltrane snippet's an obvious sop. Those who've always found her unfocused will admire the professional standard of Osborne, LaBelle, etc. while dreaming of a whole album with Scritti Politti. B

Life Is a Dance: The Remix Project [Warner Bros., 1989]
This peculiar compilation of newly commissioned remixes makes two artistic assumptions. First, that Chaka's voice and expressive reach render her the Aretha of the '80s. Second, that for various house-identified producers to fiddle with eleven of her solo titles is both an homage to and a reinterpretation of her oeuvre--even when, as does happen, her voice and expressive reach are reduced to icing and florets in the process. I accept neither. And I discern a commercial assumption underneath it all--here's a low-cost way to milk Chaka's cult. C+

Epiphany: The Best of Chaka Khan Volume One [Reprise, 1996]
Of her enormous gift there's no question--not just a sumptuous voice, those are commonplace, but sonic character. She sounds somehow nasal, sensuous, and "trained" all at once, like Sarah Vaughan with adenoids, and also with the rhythmic hots. On her great Rufus tracks (cf. MCA's best-of) Khan was uninhibited enough to sing funkier than any woman since. But though the solo "Ain't Nobody" and "I'm Every Woman" and "I Feel for You" top "Once You Get Started" if not "Tell Me Something Good" (wisely reprised live here), too often she's striven toward vacuity, as on the "five new songs" her label stickers so proudly--when she signs on with David Foster or asks Arif Mardin to do up a ballad for her, I remember that her voice also reminds me of Heatwave's synthesizer. But Luther Vandross, Melle Mel, Bird 'n' Diz, even Billie Holiday--these tributes and collaborations she's been equal to. Makes you wonder. A-

Funk This [Burgundy, 2007]
Meaning Jam & Lewis this, a decent interval after London Symphony Orchestra this and Prince this ("Disrespectful," "Foolish Fool"). **

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