making the journey to pop stardom has been easier, and the rewards (ask Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson) have gone through the roof. But when black artists trim their sound to catch the prevailing wind and sail off for the mainstream without a backward glance, they leave behind a residue of distrust and anger.
Still, the dangers of crossing over seem insignificant when black music is as healthy and vigorous as it is right now. With a resurgent rap on one side and a sophisticated neoclassicism on the other, black music is in fertile flux, a period both revolutionary and revisionist, hurtling forward and looking back. Critic Nelson George calls the neoclassic genre embodied in Anita Baker and Sade retro nuevo, a rediscovery of the richness of soul vocal styling. Not incidentally, that rediscovery has provided some artists with the means to cross over. Retro nuevo isn't exactly going back to the roots (though the label might be stretched to fit Robert Cray), but it indulges nostalgia for stylized, well-crafted vocals in a modern, unironic, often lushly emotional mood.
For many black male vocalists, drawing on the past is nothing new. R&B vocals still echo the soothing, rocking sound of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and the young Ray Charles. Recently this tradition has been battered by the no-romance stance of rap, but it's alive and kicking in the work of Billy Ocean, Teddy Pendergrass, Jeffrey Osborne, Howard Hewett, Glenn Jones, El DeBarge and the three men whose albums are reviewed here.
Luther Vandross, one of the reigning neoclassicists, is a master of the mood of pure pop romanticism that's at the heart of contemporary soul. Part crooner, part diva drawing on Johnny Mathis and Lou Rawls but inspired by Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross Vandross delivers love songs in a manner that's both cool and hot, both delicate and robust. Onstage, he sometimes indulges in a dramatic theatricality that, taken to the extreme, chokes on its own self-satisfied technique. But he tempers his Star Search overkill on his albums, which resonate with a sense of passionate restraint.
Producing and writing the bulk of his material (on Give Me the Reason, he worked with studio vet Marcus Miller, a frequent collaborator), Vandross places himself in a serene emotional midrange, from which he soars to expressive peaks. The effortlessness and variet