Of all the people I’d expect to be enjoying a live album from, Keith Sweat would be somewhere near the bottom of that particular list. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the dude’s music: I’ve been a fan since “I Want Her” ushered in the age of hip-hop/R&B (then called “New Jack Swing”) at the end of 1987. Sweat just never struck me as someone who was capable of bringing the goods live. Although I foolishly missed the one chance I got to see him in concert (opening for New Edition back in ‘96), the award show and TV performances I’d caught him on always found him in poor voice and lacking any real stage personality.
So, while I was initially surprised that I enjoyed Sweat Hotel Live, the singer’s second commercially released concert album (recorded in Atlanta on Valentine‘s Day 2006; a companion DVD is also available), I can think of things that should have predetermined my enjoyment of it. First is the album’s lengthy list of guest artists. The album features guest shots from Sweat proteges Silk and Kut Klose, mentor/producer Teddy Riley, current R&B king Akon, and a variety of others.
The second reason is nostalgia, pure and simple. As a guy in his early thirties who grew up in Brooklyn, hearing many of these songs takes me back to teenage summers hanging out on my front stoop blasting the latest hits on my boom box. It also gives me fond memories of one of the last major creative explosions in contemporary black music: During his initial run of success, Sweat was both a throwback to classic lovermen of old and a forward-looking pioneer, blending his signature whiny “begging” vocals with tight, angular hip-hop beats. Along with acts like Guy and Bobby Brown, Sweat set the stage for the melding of hip-hop and R&B that still reigns over urban radio airwaves today. In retrospect, that might not be so much of a good thing, but it was certainly new and exciting back then!
While Sweat’s thin, nasal voice turns out to be stronger than I expected it would be, he still relies on his background singers, guest artists, and the screams of an adoring audience to bolster the performances. The audience appreciation is obvious, and you can assume (probably correctly) that everyone in attendance was singing every word to every song (which, quite frankly, I probably would’ve been doing as well). Sweat wisely gives over portions of the show to stronger vocalists. The group Silk delivers a thrillingly seductive reading of their hit “Lose Control” (featuring a call-and-response with the enthralled female portion of the crowd), and the Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson stands in impressively for Guy’s Aaron Hall during a run-through of the Sweat-composed Guy hit “Let’s Chill”.
Not to take anything away from Sweat’s skills. He wisely sticks to his hits and audience favorites—about half of his live set consists of songs from his debut album, Make It Last Forever, his most fondly remembered (although not his best-selling) work. While he offers swift run-throughs of the up-tempo hits (like the quick medley of “I Want Her” and “Something Just Ain’t Right” that opens the CD), he offers readings of the album’s signature ballads that play right into the audience’s hands. Listening to Sweat plead his way through seductive jams like “Right & A Wrong Way” (a song about deflowering a virgin) and “How Deep Is Your Love” (not the Bee Gees song), you get a feeling that a large part of the audience went home and did the nasty.
While the plentiful array of guest artists gives the project a fun, party-type atmosphere (especially on an all-star rendition of Johnny Kemp’s 1988 hit “Just Got Paid”, featuring the previously M.I.A. Kemp himself), a couple of the more contemporary guests rain on the proverbial parade. Monica adds nothing more than a minute or so of off-key emoting to the ballad “I’ll Give All My Love To You”, and an appearance by Akon seems like nothing more than a mandate to add a cameo from at least one artist who has had a chart hit in the past five years.
I generally frown on live albums, considering them a watered down version of the concert experience (what’s a show with no visuals?). Nevertheless, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Sweat Hotel Live (despite it’s cringe-worthy title). While it won’t be a necessity as long as Sweat has a hits compilation in print, it’s almost good enough to be an acceptable substitute.