In Retirement, Anita Baker Brings Out the Best of Us
Retirements in music are usually taken with a grain of salt. Most feature blustery press releases, an avalanche of promotion and constant reminders. Only, they rarely stick. Most actual retirements are hiatuses, when you actually think about it. Sade was thought to be retired after 2000’s Lovers Rock album. They returned a decade later with Soldier of Love, only proclaiming that they’d taken a break because their lead singer, Sade Adu, was raising her daughter. Hip-hop retirements? They’re all the more annoying. Jay Z feigned retirement, only to re-emerge two years later. Too $hort has discussed retirement time and time again only for it not to occur, time and time again.
But with Anita Baker, the vocalist with a set of pipes tailor-made for ballads and provocative R&B, her retirement announcement seemed quaint and quiet. Which is shockingly fitting for a singer and talent who only commanded the spotlight when she felt it completely necessary.
Baker’s last visit to Houston, according to the Arena Theatre, came in 2002. Her last visit to Texas in a touring capacity period? 2010 in Austin. Her final song that night inside Arena was “Giving You the Best That I Got,” a now 29-year-old single that is as rich as it is vulnerable. In an era when pop and R&B found new, singular names such as Whitney and Janet, there stood Anita Baker, a traditional contralto vocalist with the sultry vibe of a singer in the era of jazz and swing clubs. In a way, when the world around her became intertwined in a pop-meets-R&B-meets-hip-hop kind of tryst, Baker refused to budge or pivot.
To her, Prince was “ahead of his time” and a “sensei." The same could be said for her own talent and influence.
It may be a shame that there will not be another Anita Baker tour or album. She’s content being a “beach bum,” as she announced a little over a week ago. With seven Grammy Awards and a host of other accolades, she's become a staple on radio from sunup to sundown and influenced a generation of talents. Those are hefty accomplishments to rest on. Even the records that launched other careers, such as Toni Braxton’s “Love Should Have Brought You Home Last Night,” from the 1992 Eddie Murphy comedy Boomerang, were originally intended for Baker. Her retirement is nothing to scoff at, nothing to be upset about. To her, it was time. And she’s satisfied with it.
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Consider the albums and moments that came before and followed the release of Baker’s Rapture album in 1986. New Jack Swing was bubbling into form via Teddy Riley and his influence on Keith Sweat’s 1987 album, Make It Last Forever. Janet Jackson had been wed to the influence of Prince via Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis with Control, released three months prior to Rapture. A year earlier, Whitney Houston delivered a pop masterpiece with her self-titled debut album; its follow-up a year later only further cemented her superstar status. Three very distinctive artists, all separate from what Baker was presenting. If Riley was giving R&B an edge closer to hip-hop, there was Houston channeling the elements while maintaining an All-American-girl motif. If Jackson, Jam and Lewis were formulating the sound that would come to define contemporary R&B, there was Anita, crafting quiet-storm music while at the same time emitting an aura of vocal sophistication. She knew that her creation process in the ’80s would give her unyielding success. She also admitted the sadness and pain that came with it.
When she suffered a much-publicized miscarriage in 1989, she cited her touring schedule. The cycle happened again two years later. In a 1994 interview with Ebony ahead of her Rhythm of Love album, she remarked, “Sometimes when you are on that merry-go-round, you lose your rhythm and you need to just stop the ride and get off and find your rhythm.”
That contralto, Ohio-born and Detroit-molded, became a staple of contemporary radio for more than three decades. It wasn’t hard to find oneself humming “Caught Up In the Rapture” or “Sweet Love,” attempting to mimic her tone. Of course, one would fail to match it, but it was a fun game to try out. She took a ten-year break between projects. My Everything and Christmas Fantasy will go down as the final Baker albums, though fans did have teases to hold onto; she was nominated for another Grammy in 2012 for covering Tyrese’s “Lately." The covers album that she was set to release, Only Forever, never came to fruition.
When artists retire, we sink into questions of selfishness, whether their art and spirit belong to us and only us. It’s a matter we confront every time they decide to take a break or acknowledge that the world is more than just their art. That their lives don’t necessarily run concurrent with ours. Musicians, especially those with as large a catalog as Baker’s, no longer become these personal items or totems we hold onto for safety. For comfort. They eventually belong to the rest of the world and once they’re done, they’re done. Thankfully, Baker is done on her own terms as opposed to something tragic. She is set to celebrate a birthday this week, her 59th.
Giving us that voice wasn’t the absolute best she ever gave us. But it helped carry us in times of love and heartbreak.
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