Friday, May 30, 2003

In the last year, I've sold the bulk of my CD collection; they take up space, most of 'em I didn't play much if at all (I use what I call the "six month rule": if I haven't played it in the last six months, chances are I won't miss it - with exceptions, of course), and the ones I really love I just rip to my hard drive. But one I absolutely refuse to sell is The Best of Stephanie Mills: 20th Century Masters/The Millenium Collection. Good God I love her.

She got her first big break starring in The Wiz on Broadway. Don't hold that against her. [If Mills, instead of La Ross, had starred in the film, it would've been very different, and very much better.] Her first big hit was also her biggest ever pop hit, 1980's "Never Knew Love Like This Before." Its effervescence still bubbles, 20-plus years later. But then she got really good. She turned her back on the pop world, and worked it.

Mills put together quite a body of work in the '80s, a decade which saw her claim 5 #1s on Billboard's Hot Black Singles chart - and she did it using a revolving cast of writers and producers, nearly never using the same one(s) twice. Amazingly, her body of work sounds like just that; The Best of doesn't hop and skip from one style to another. Mills' strength was her voice, and every single she released spotlit it superbly. Yet she was also able to go from big, showstopping ballads (which many consider her strength, particularly The Wiz's "Home," which she rerecorded in 1989 and had another #1 with) to synth-driven, danceable tracks (such as that same year's "Something in the Way (You Make Me Feel)," written and produced by Angela Winbush) with utter ease. The production, yes, largely has dated. Heavy on the click-tracks and "Beautiful Ones"-lite synthesized drums, it holds a certain I-love-the-'80s charm. The songs, however, haven't aged a bit. Toni Braxton could sing the hell out of a showcase such as "Rising Desire," and I long to think how Aaliyah and Timbaland could've remade my all-time favorite Mills single, 1987's "(You're Puttin') A Rush On Me," all minimalist rhythm track and keyboard wash.

Stephanie Mills makes it all sound so easy, so honest, and so real. She's never gotten her just due in the pantheon of R&B greats; now's as good a time as any, right? Grab a copy of 20th Century Masters: The Best of - her best best-of still in print - and say Amen, somebody!

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