The pairing of Janet Jackson with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis often steals the limelight when the conversation turns to great R&B teams of the ’80s. While just as successful, the team of Karen White with L.A Reid and Babyface (LaFace Records) was just as impressive if ultimately not as influential.
Not that Karen White’s debut album lacked what it took to become a hit, as much of it was with three top ten songs on the R&B charts and at least one what made it into the pop top 20. By comparison to Ms. Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, White’s debut may not have been as focused on a theme, but it made up for the lack of anger and political agenda with pure vocal prowess.
White had been a notable backup singer in the years leading up to her debut. Before that, the fairly new production team of L.A. Reid and Babyface made stars of Pebbles and Toni Braxton, two performers who arguably nominal singers. The production team scored their first big hits with Paula Abdul, but it wasn’t until the team worked with Karyn White that they had found their best match.
White arguably had the best voice of any of the artists L.A. Reid and Babyface had worked with. Karyn White had a lush production that stayed in the middle of the R&B pop sphere. Shades of Paula Abdul may have been heard in “The Way You Love Me”, but it was with the ballad “Superwoman” that White established her vocal and emotion stirring abilities against what was beginning to sound like a factory made Reid/Babyface production.
In addition to being a well rounded traditional R&B album, Karyn White might have the distinction of being one of the last great innocent R&B productions before Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation along with hip hop brought street angst to R&B. The wave forced many R&B artists to re-examine their music with White being no different.
Despite having a greater range than many of her contemporaries, White became something of a constellation prize in the quest to chase Janet Jackson’s com trails. Part of this comes from the fact that LaFace Records was at it’s peak churning out any number of artists who with vocals removed all shared a similar production style.
This style as perpetrated by Shena Easton, Paula Abdul, Pebbles, Toni Braxton and others who with constant overlap had become the sound of the late ’80s. Fortunately for White, her impressive vocal skills helped set her apart from what would become a cookie cutter production style that served the Reid/Babyface team well through the ’80s and much of the ’90s.
Recognizing the need for a more diverse sound (or wanting to cover all the bases), White would eventually test the waters in Minneapolis with Jam/Lewis (and others) on her followup, but it’s with L.A.Reid and Babyface where she was at her best.