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Music Review: Chaka Khan Funk This

One of the major reasons for the moribund nature of popular music these day is the fact that the major providers of content are primarily concerned with producing music that appeals to as broad a cross section of the population as possible. The result is a product that's as bland as it is lacking in personality.

Sometimes it seems that the majority of the acts are interchangeable; any of them could perform the songs being produced in their genre and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. Gone are the days of the distinct voice or style that allowed people to distinguish between the different groups and individuals performing on the radio. If you want to get signed by one of the major labels you better not only sound like everybody else, but look like them as well.

Some genres are worse then others, and by far the worst offender is what passes for Dance music these days. Part of the problem is that the majority of the music is performed by machines and has little or no human emotions or spirit involved in the process. Watching people dance to this "music" is like watching a computer respond to the commands of a program, repeating the same actions endlessly. Occasional glitches in the software can cause confusion, but there is always something else standing by to replace it.
Chaka in concert.jpg
It used to be that Dance music was performed by live musicians, even in the Disco era no one would presume to use all electronics to create something that was supposed to inspire movement in people. In fact, before Disco, there wasn't even a separate category for dance music. Some music might have been more conducive to dancing because of it's rhythm, but that didn't stop you from also sitting and enjoying listening to it.

One of the most consistently strong performers of Funk, Rhythm & Blues, Blues, and Soul music from the early seventies onwards has been the great woman vocalist Chaka Khan. When she was younger, she was known for her small frame and huge Afros almost as much as her amazing voice. If you can remember back to the early 1970's, you'll remember songs like "Tell Me Something Good" which she performed as a member of the band Rufus.

Well the hair isn't quite as big anymore, and she looks a heck of a lot healthier with a few more pounds on her frame, but one thing that hasn't changed is her voice. In fact judging by her latest release, Funk This, on Burgundy Records in the ten years since she last made a studio album her voice has matured into an even more sophisticated instrument.

She used to get by on sheer power alone, attacking a song with growls, squeals, and trips up and down the scale. She could reach up into the sky and grab those notes you only usually see opera singers consider singing as easily as she growled out a blues number in a sultry alto. Now, not only is she still gifted with an extraordinarily powerful and agile voice, she has learned subtleties of phrasing allowing her to infuse her songs with even more character than before.

Funk This is a mixture of originals and covers of some of the best Rhythm and Blues, Funk, Blues, and Soul music from the past thirty to forty years. One of the songs to show off her delicacy of touch is her cover of the Jimi Hendrix's "Castles Made Of Sand". A song about the impermanence of dreams and the dangers of living in a fantasy world, Ms Khan utilizes her voice to help generate a mood appropriate to the song.
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This song is also a good example of her ability to put the song ahead of her ego instead of it being about her and her talents. While younger, less mature singers, will look for any excuse to unload pyrotechnics and show off their abilities, Chaka is content to let the mood of the song dictate her performance. Listening to her duet with up and coming powerhouse singer Mary J. Blige on the song "Disrespectful" that difference is made perfectly clear.

The younger woman still feels the need to prove herself and is constantly unloading with both barrels and not leaving herself any room to manoeuvre. If you start out at full strength you have nothing to build up to, and you end up with a song whose only distinguishing feature is its loudness. Ms Khan is far more interesting as she modulates the power of her voice so that she builds to a finale.

Equally amazing is Chaka's versatility as a singer as demonstrated by the range of material that Funk You has to offer; from the full throttle Funk of the opening track "Back In The Day" to the ballad "Angel". She shows that slowing the pace down does nothing to detract from her sincerity as a singer. Too often people with strong voices become stentorian when faced with a ballad and equate emotion with loudness and straining for the upper regions of the scale.

Chaka Khan is not that type of singer, and makes certain that when she sings a ballad to avoid all the typical clichés that one normally hears in popular music a la Celine Dionne and the like. Ms. Khan expresses genuine emotions and keeps the music as real as possible. The only song that even comes close to falling into that trap is her duet with Michael McDonald on "You Belong To Me" and then it is the fault of the material and her co-performer more than anything else.

On September 25th 2007, Chaka Khan will be releasing her first solo studio project in ten years. After listening to Funk This you'll agree this is a CD long overdue. Just maybe it will help people remember that live musicians play music more danceable then anything a computer or sequencer can generate. It also has the plus that you can sit and listen to it if you don't feel like dancing – amazing huh?

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