Please, Baby Please...
When Spike Lee released his film She’s Gotta Have It in the summer of 1986, not everyone was convinced that he was a great filmmaker. But it was his character Mars Blackmon (portrayed by Lee himself) that perhaps got Lee green-lighted the next time around, as Blackmon helped Lee tap into his own comic genius as an actor, if not quite a filmmaker yet. With Mars it was all about that line, “please, baby please” and damn if nobody had quite begged as well on the big screen. What Mars Blackmon gave voice to was a well worn aesthetic often practiced by those men we call Soul Men. Bobby Womack, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and Tyrone “Can I Change My Mind?” Davis had written veritable dissertations on the “beg”—begging for her to come back, begging her to come home with him, begging her to drop those panties, begging, begging, begging. When Keith Sweat first emerged in 1987, nobody was ever gonna mistake him for a Soul Man—voice too thin, little range, always two steps removed from being in tune. But damn if bruh didn’t know how to beg—somewhere in between a whine and a beg, really—and beg he did, arguably becoming the most recognizable R&B singer of his generation (save Misters Kelly and Levert). Make You Sweat: The Best of Keith Sweat captures the Keith Sweat mystique in all its surprising glory.
Keith Sweat came into the game at a moment in which there was a dearth of “strong” vocalists in R&B, as the genre was making the transition from the Soul era to the Hip-Hop/New Jack Swing hybrid that would dominate so-called “urban” music until the mid-1990s. Yes, Luther Vandross was the best singer on earth (and I’ll throw in Howard Hewitt and Jeffrey Osborne for the sake of argument), but understand that he and Keith Sweat were never peers—Sweat’s popularity was always premised on how hip-hop heads heard R&B, not the 30-somethins’ who could dig a silky Soul rendition of a Hal David and Burt Bacharach composition. Thus Ms. Houston wasn’t really tripping when she called her hubby “The King of R&B”—in the minds of the Hip-Hop generation, who was his competition? Al B. Sure, Ralph Tresvant, Ricky Bell (both Johnny Gill and Gerald Levert were really throwbacks)? It wasn’t really until Boyz II Men, Jodeci, and Mr. Kelly arrived in the early 1990s that the Hip-Hop generation even began to think about tight harmonies and quality vocals (though anybody who has ever heard Sam Cooke or Aretha Franklin sing still thinks pitch is a foreign concept to this generation and I ain’t just talkin’ about Ms. Blige). And it was in this context that an artist like Keith Sweat dominated, and dominate he did—his debut, Make It Last Forever (1987), was fixture on the urban charts for nearly two years.
Sweat initially turned to a fellow Harlem homie to break out in 1987. Few in the industry knew of Riley in early 1987, but after his success writing and producing for Johnny Kemp (whose “Just Got Paid” is generally recognized as the birth of New Jack Swing) and Sweat, he became a fixture in the world of R&B. The product of Riley and Sweat’s initial collaboration was “I Want Her”—a song that captured both the swagger of hip-hop and Buppie-dance floor dreams. With Sweat (in his VIM sweaters and high-top fade) grunting, grinding, and whining above Riley’s pulsating synthesized soul, a star was born. Even in an era when the recording industry could still be described as a form of apartheid and four years before Soundscan would change the world, “I Want Her” broke through (top-five style) on both the R&B and Pop charts—evidence that Sweat had the ear of mainstream radio programmers. Though none of the follow-up releases from Make It Last Forever had as much pop success, tracks like “Don’t Stop Your Love”, “Something Just Ain’t Right”, and his duet with Jacci McGhee on “Make It Last Forever”—all songs written and produced by Sweat or in collaboration with Riley—quickly became standard bearers for the still evolving New Jack Swing sound.
It would be nearly three years before Sweat stepped on the scene again with his sophomore effort I’ll Give All My Love to You. Distancing himself from Riley’s influence (in part because of Riley’s legal problems with former partner Gene Griffin), I’ll Give All My Love to You finds Sweat more assured, evolving from what was increasingly becoming the tired sound of New Jack Swing. The lead single “Make You Sweat”, written with former Riley partner Timmy Gatling, percolates with a gospelized funk that has rarely been achieved since, unless your name is Kirk Franklin. And yeah, the song lives up to its title—straight hip-hop era funk aimed at sweatin’ out weaves, jerri curls (marking the end of an era perhaps). “Make You Sweat” brought Sweat back to the pop charts (though a far different terrain in the YO MTV Raps moment). Though the follow-up single, “Merry Go Round” (KS in classic whine mode), failed to cross over (Sweat releases have consistently topped the R&B charts during his career), he did break through with the surprising title track, which remains one of Sweat’s best ballads. I’ll Give All My Love to You also features the first collaboration between Sweat and Gerald Levert on “Just One of Those Thangs”, which was inexplicably left off Make You Sweat: The Best of Keith Sweat, particularly since there are seven songs from Make It Last Forever on the collection—including two mixes of the title track.
Sweat got into a workman’s mode following-up I’ll Give All My Love to You with Keep It Comin’ (1991) and Get Up On It (1994). In comparison to his first two full-length releases, the latter recordings seem uninspired. Sweat re-emerged in 1996—in an R&B world now dominated by R. Kelly—with the best recording of his career. Prominently featured on Keith Sweat was the vocal trio Kut Klose, who sang backup vocals on the lead single, “Twisted”, which became Sweat’s highest charting pop track. Kut Klose lead vocalist Athena Cage sang opposite Sweat on the sensuous and plaintive “Nobody”, which also nearly topped the pop charts. Sweat capitalized on his newfound pop success a year later as part of the R&B super-group LSG, which featured Sweat, Levert and Johnny Gill. Though Sweat was easily out-sung by his more talented partners, it was perhaps emblematic of the Sweat mystique that he largely carried the project to both pop and R&B audiences.
Keith Sweat and Levert-Sweat-Gill would prove to be the watershed moment in Sweat’s career. Now in his mid-30s and forced to compete with the likes of Joe, Usher, Carl Thomas, Avant, Donell Jones, still Mr. Kelly, and any ole knuckle-head warbler who sang a hook on a hip-hop track (and no I’m not talking about Nate Dogg, who is one of a kind), by the time Still in the Game was released in late 1998 (a telling title), some folk began to refer to Sweat as a “classic Soul” artist—the kiss of death for any artists hoping to sell a record to anyone under the age of 25.
Never the most talented cat on the block, Keith Sweat’s mix of earnestness, longevity, and passion (yes passion) has made him one of the most recognizable R&B and Pop singers of his generation.