BeBe Winans: Love & Freedom

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By Mark Anthony Neal

There is perhaps nothing more daunting in popular music than attempting to establish an individual musical identity when you are related to an already established family act. While Janet Jackson has arguably surpassed her brother Michael as an artist, there were a litany of underwhelming and even atrocious Jackson solo releases from the likes of Jermaine (easily the most successful after Michael and Janet), Jackie, Tito, Randy (perhaps the most underrated talent in the Jackson clan), Marlon, Rebe, Latoya, and even the sons of Tito (3T). When BeBe and CeCe Winans released their debut recording in 1987, they did so firmly in the shadows of their four brothers Marvin, Carvin, Ronald, and Michael, who as The Winans were laying the crossover foundations that would benefit acts such as Kirk Franklin and Mary, Mary in the late 1990s. The Winans’s collaboration with fellow Detroit native Anita Baker on “Ain’t No Need to Worry” (1987) was one of the first gospel recordings to “crossover” to the black and pop charts in half a generation.

By the time of their third and most accomplished release Different Lifestyles in 1991, the brother/sister act of BeBe and CeCe had established themselves as the definitive crossover gospel group. After six releases including a Christmas recording and a greatest hits disc, BeBe and CeCe chose to venture on different recording paths; CeCe to a solo career that would establish her as a artist of “Christian” music and BeBe as the mainstream performer that his songwriting and production had always hinted at in the past. With the release of his second solo disc Love and Freedom BeBe Winans has successfully made the transition as a legitimate R&B artist.

Love and Freedom is a solid follow-up to Winans’s self-titled debut disc, which featured the touching single “In Harm’s Way”. Since his first release, BeBe Winans has switched labels from Atlantic to the Kedar Massenburg empire at Motown. Much like Will Downing’s debut for Motown last spring, Winans eschews the risk taking that has accompanied many of Massenburg’s previous projects (Badu, Chico Debarge, D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar and the forthcoming India.Arie) and settles for that which is comfortable and familiar and to his credit Winans wears the comfortable and the familiar quite well. Such is the case with the project’s lead single “Coming Back Home” which features additional lead vocals by the ever so smooth Joe and the “still somnolent after all these years” Brian McKnight. Winans more than holds his own—quite frankly he out sings them—against two of the more established contemporary R&B crooners. The song is one of two that Joe shares co-writing duties (the other is “What About It”) with Winans and while Joe has been a solid song writer in his own right, both lack the kind of power that one might expect from such a high profile “crossover” collaboration.

Instead some of the best tracks on Love and Freedom feature Winans with more “classic” collaborators. Winans is joined by one-time child star and one of the definitive R&B vocalists of the 1980s, Stephanie Mills, on the track “Everyday”. Mills, whose voice is as assured and powerful as ever, is also in the midst of a professional transformation, as she remakes herself as a gospel artist after a highly successful career as a pop vocalist that began more than 25 years ago when she first appeared as “Dorothy” in the Broadway musical The Wiz. CeCe Winans reprises her role as familiar vocal foil to BeBe’s lilting tenor on the BeBe penned “Tonight, Tonight”. While the tone of the song evokes the kind of secular passions that their music only hinted at in the past, lyrically the song is classic BeBe and CeCe, with the requisite ambiguity that the duo has made a fine art. As usual one is hard pressed to decode whether the lyrics are intended to acknowledge a higher religious power or a reference to a more romantic coupling, heterosexual or otherwise.

On the track “Jesus Children of America” BeBe Winans is joined by both his brother Marvin and the song’s originator, Stevie Wonder, who recorded the track first on his classic recording Innervisions (1973). The Winans version of the recording is one of those rare moments a remake of a song may prove more affecting than the original. It is also a subtle reminder, that no matter how legendary Stevie Wonder, he simply sounds better when produced by those other than himself, as is the case with this tune which finds Warryn “Baby Dub” Campbell behind the boards. What makes the Winans version of the song so spectacular are the vocal arrangements provided by Luther Vandross. While Vandross is arguably the dominant male R&B voice of the last generation, he has often expressed his affection for background vocal arrangement and background singing. Vandross first collaborated with Winans on the beautifully brilliant “Searching For Love” from Different Lifestyles (1991). “Jesus Children of America” is one of several tracks in which Vandross works his magical background arranging, as he is joined by his usual background cohorts Fonzi Thorton, Tawatha Agee (of Mtume fame), Paulette McWilliams and Cindy Mizelle on the driving title track and the Louie Vega/Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez produced “Brand New Dance”. Other standouts on Love and Freedom include the sweet “I’m in Love with You” and “My Heart” which were both co-written by Winans. Winans closes out Love and Freedom with a stirring rendition of Donnie McLurkin’s “Stand”, which first appeared on McClurkin’s self-titled debut in 1996. McClurkin, who shares a vocal quality similar to Winans, is earning a name for himself as singer/songwriter of some distinction was mentored earlier in his career by BeBe’s brother Marvin.

Winans will never be mistaken for the kind of neo/organic soul denizens that are beginning to (over) populate contemporary and his connection to the world of (black) Christian music will guarantee that he well never be mistaken for R. Kelly or Babyface, nevertheless, Love and Freedom is a solid effort that is likely to earn Winans new fans and satiate the desires of old fans waiting for the next BeBe and CeCe project.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/winansbebe-love/