Anita Baker’s ‘Rapture’ at 30: How a Promising Singer Won It All by Being Herself
What does a perfect album sound like? A lot like Rapture.
One of the last classic R&B albums to drop before the emergence of New Jack Swing in the late 1980s, Anita Baker's Rapture is immaculately produced and passionately performed soul music of the smoother variety. Baker's vocals are as expressive as a jazz singer's and her finest album stands as a testament to the craft and impact of urbane, sophisticated R&B that emerged in the early-to-mid 1980s.
Baker's first album, 1983s The Songstress, had been moderately successful with singles like "You're the Best Thing Yet" and "Angel" gaining notice in R&B circles; and the album got the singer enough notice for Warner Communications' Elektra Records to offer her an opportunity to record for their label. It took almost two years of legal wrangling for Baker to be freed from her contract with Beverly Glen Music. Theoretically, that was enough time for the momentum she'd built to fade. Nonetheless, her first album for a major label proved to be more than just sustenance for a promising career--it was her commercial and critical breakthrough.
Rapture's release heralded Anita Baker was a defining voice in an era of R&B that was spilling over with great voices and sterling productions. Baker, unlike Whitney Houston, wasn't overly marketed to pop audiences; she found her groove and her niche firmly in the kind of quiet storm grooves that had defined so much of Black radio in the 1980s. Paired with producer Michael J. Powell (for the first of what would be three albums they would record together), Baker had the kind of slick backing that The Songstress had hinted at, but it was presented in a much fuller form here.
And the songs would become staples of Anita Baker's repertoire and of smooth R&B for generations: "Same Ol' Love," "No One In the World," "Caught Up in the Rapture" and the unforgettable "Sweet Love" have seemingly never left the collective conscience of music fans and they define a period that was only beginning to fade.
Of course, no one knew that at the time.
The kind of smoldering quiet storm that Anita Baker perfected on Rapture was R&B's definitive style in the mid-1980s; but there was something else on the horizon. The emergence of New Jack Swing (via late 80s albums like 1987s Make It Last Forever by Keith Sweat and, in 1988, Bobby Brown's Don't Be Cruel) had a tremendous affect on how audiences saw R&B music and on how R&B and hip-hop related to each other. At the time of Rapture's release, hip-hop and R&B couldn't have been further apart. Anita Baker was the kind of sensual sophistication that hip-hop seemed to be rebelling against. It should be noted that 1986 was also the year that hip-hop experienced it's commercial breakthrough via Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys.
In the long term, R&B and hip-hop would become fused at the hip for a generation of music fans heading into the 1990s, as rappers began to have singers featured on their hits and singers began having rappers guest on their singles. In the short term, there was a sort of generational divide that emerged; the "grown folks R&B" of Luther Vandross, Patti Austin and Freddie Jackson sat on a different side of the proverbial table than Bobby Brown, Karyn White and Bell Biv Devoe. But there was room for both voices to thrive--at least, there was room initially.
And Anita Baker was a superstar who thrived even as this paradigm shift was occurring. Following Rapture's multiplatinum success (8 million worldwide), Baker took home two Grammys in 1987 and embarked on her acclaimed "Rapture Tour." Her status never wavered for the next several years, as she released hit albums like Giving You the Best That I've Got, Compositions and Rhythm of Love before taking an extended break in 1995.
Hers was a space that was unique in popular music of the 80s and 90s, and her voice was unlike any peer. And Rapture is Anita Baker's masterpiece and a seminal album of the 1980s and beyond. By foregoing the dance pop and hip-hop trends that were swirling around her, she was able to craft something truly timeless. That's no disrespect to those genres or the R&B singers who dabbled in them; but there's something to be said for knowing who you are and presenting that to the world. And that's what Anita Baker did with Rapture. She was a promising singer who probably didn't have enough clout at the time to swing for the fences like she did. But we're all better off for it.
30 years later, everyone's still caught up in the rapture of that perfect album.