There are plenty of things to give thanks for today, despite the unfortunate things that dominate the news. Music often mirror trends in society, but more often can anticipate it. Keith Sweat may have anticipated a longing for more sophistication in the wake of hip hops massive influence on mid-’80s R&B. Having sung solo as a night club performer in upscale New York clubs put him in a unique position to mix the romance and dignity of old school soul with some of the swagger and flash of hip hop. In contrast to much of the hip hop dominated R&B, Sweat would toned down the ghetto posturing and carry his songs with original melodies as opposed to samples.
His first solo album Make It Last Forever was a bold departure from the normal rap pop of the late ’80s. I remember hearing the first single “I Want Her” and thinking that Slave was back together with Steve Arrington. The single had the same kind of swing to it and vocal phrasing that Steve Arrington had made popular with Dayton Ohio based band nearly a decade earlier.
In addition to the heavy Arrington influence, Keith Sweat would use other elements from Ohio based R&B bands like Zapp and Rodger Troutman. Robotic vocorder voice effects were used thought out the production of Make It Last Forever, much like Troutman had used in the first half of the decade.
Memories in pop music are notoriously short, especially in R&B. The typical audience for much of the hip hop inspired hits of 1987 may have been too young to remember Slave, but had un knowingly exposed to them via samples in popular rap music. What Teddy Riley and Keith Sweat managed to do was take a forgotten style, polish it up and present it as something completely new, with a sharp differentiation from what the Jam and Lewis camp was doing.
Make It Last Forever had become the first of a long string of albums made under the New Jack Swing banner. In being an early flagship, it showcased the style’s thematic diversity. Slow Quiet Storm ballads like the title song took the cow bell production tricks of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to new heights as did the popular “Don’t Stop Your Love”.
The slickly produced 8 song collection saw half of its tracks released as singles. Make It Last Forever‘s strongest songs were the upbeat. The ones that proved that it was still possible to look cool despite being sweaty from hard dancing. “I Want Her” and “Something Just Ain’t Right” were huge R&B hits that eventually crossed over into the top 40.
Janet Jackson’s Control may have been the first New Jack Swing mega hit, it would be Keith Sweat and Teddy Riley who would create the template from which others would follow. The success of Make It Last Forever spawned copy cats and launched Teddy Riley’s career as a producer (long after his groups Guy and Blackstreet had faded).
Make It Last Forever marks an early high point in a fleeting golden age in R&B where singing ability became important again. The emphasis on vocal ability nearly offsets the somewhat dated production. It was a short-lived, as the charts slowly became dominated by rap with increasingly lowered standards of cleverness and musical ability.