Chaka Khan What Cha’ Gonna Do for Me? Review

Album. Released 1981.  

BBC Review

Enough of the same, plenty of the different on Khan’s third solo LP.

Daryl Easlea 2011

By 1981, Chaka Khan was close approaching soul/jazz royalty status in the US. After the best part of a decade spent recording she could, either solo or with her group Rufus, guarantee gold album status with every release. Yet in the UK she remained a one-off delicacy, known for her I’m Every Woman hit.

But this third album saw her break into new ground. Recorded in Montreux and made with sundry members of the Average White Band, it’s an album that reveals it charms gradually. The title-track, although failing to chart in the UK, topped the US R&B listings. It’s a robust funk song that was originally intended for the Average White Band themselves. Although there was some criticism that her voice was too far down in the mix, controlled by producer Arif Mardin, it actually works: she becomes another virtuoso playing their part.

Any Old Sunday finds her in a sprightly almost McCartney-esque mood, while the self-penned I Know You, I Live explores a more freeform territory. We Got Each Other has got that early-80s urban groove down pat, with its springy bass, flashy synths and strident vocals. Night in Tunisia, with its solo from Dizzy Gillespie and a pre-technology sample of Charlie Parker, showed that no-one could deliver pop-jazz as beautifully as Khan.

Most interesting here, though, is Heed the Warning, which has a really nice electro edge to it, with synthesizers played by future David Bowie and Iggy Pop collaborator David Richards. It’s almost like Gary Numan helming The Who’s Baba O’Reilly with Khan emoting freely on top. It sounds ahead of its time and is a fabulous song.

Although it wasn’t until late 1983 and early 84 that Khan gained her real foothold in the UK, with the killer one-two of Ain’t Nobody and I Feel For You, What Cha’ Gonna Do for Me was a superb selection for the cognoscenti. Frequently loud and somewhat messy at times for such an accomplished soul album, it is packed with charm and sophistication. And Khan’s lungs are always at full pelt. All told, it’s rather lovely.

A fine set of polished, well-produced soul, it also has the distinction of sounding at least three years ahead of its time. With its big block synthesizer chords and clattering drums, horn stabs and Khan’s beguiling torch vocals, it seems to point the way to what Shannon and Stephanie Mills (and Khan herself) would be up to in 1984.

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