Audiences can perhaps be forgiven for forgetting about Lalah Hathaway — her last full length recording was 1994’s A Moment — but her surname demands that we never forget her entirely. As the progeny of a regal soul man, Hathaway has carved out a niche for herself, singing not the music of her genre-bounding father, but the music that matters most to her. Hathaway and blue-smoke vocals return with Outrun the Sky, her first recording for the Mesa/Bluemoon label — that same label that once made Randy Crawford relevant again with 1995’s Cajun Moon.
Lalah Hathaway’s self-titled 1990 debut, a mix of R&B and pop-jazz, found a place amidst the dominant new jack grooves of the era. Hathaway’s sound on tracks like “Somethin'” and “Sentimental” was assured and mature — a maturity that her label thought betrayed the reality that she was the same age as many of the folk who were recording the anthems of the “New Jack” era. A Moment, Hathaway’s follow-up, was a deliberate attempt to make Hathaway’s music more attractive to the so-called hip-hop generation. For the most part, the gambit failed, though Hathaway continued to have a loyal following — folks who appreciated her cameo appearances on recordings by Meshell NdegeOcello, Wayman Tisdale, and Take 6 (Hathaway joined the group on a rendition of her father’s “Someday We’ll Be Free”). Hathaway returned to public consciousness five years ago when she collaborated with jazz legend, and original Jazz Crusader, Joe Sample, with their widely acclaimed The Song Lives On. The collaboration produced the track “When Your Life Was Low”, which Hathaway now refers to as her “signature” tune.
It is in the spirit of The Song Lives On that Hathaway’s latest, Outrun the Sky, finds its place. There are obvious attempts to garner some support from urban radio, like the Mike City-produced tracks “Your Favorite Song” and “Better and Better”, but Hathaway’s strength throughout her career has been the ballad. No longer feeling the need to compete with some of her R&B peers, Hathaway makes the transition here to song stylist — think Nancy Wilson — adding a level of depth by writing many of the project’s songs.
Many of the tracks on Outrun the Sky are autobiographical. The title track, for example, was written during a particularly bumpy flight from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, where Hathaway dreamed out loud about surviving the flight and making good on all the goals she’d set for herself. Some of the songs were inspired by a sense of romantic loss that she shared with some of her friends. Among those songs, the gritty anthem “Admit It” is the clear standout as Hathaway laments the “silly shit men do”. The show-stopping “We Were Two”, which clocks in at more than eight minutes, is another gem, displaying, among other things, Hathaway’s skill at improvisation — sis is straight testifyin’ over the final minutes of the song, even channeling her father (“that’s alright”). And then there’s “Boston” (Hathaway graduated from the Berklee School of Music), where the city becomes a metaphor for the kind of personal growth that feelings of loss often inspire.
In a touching and all too fleeting frame during the video for Luther Vandross’s “Dance with My Father”, Hathaway appears with Nona Gaye holding pictures of their respective fathers. A year later, Hathaway was tapped to appear on Forever, for Always, for Luther, a smooth-jazz tribute recording produced by Rex Rideout. Hathaway’s contribution, a stunning rendition of Vandross’s “Forever, for Always, for Love”, is included on Outrun the Sky.
These days, its easy to lament the lack of younger vocalists who posses the kind of versatility and attention to craft that marks the music of Nancy Wilson, Teena Marie, or Chaka Khan in her prime. Though Mary J. Blige may eventually mature into such a role, Lalah Hathaway may already be there — Outrun the Sky is proof.