When Anita Baker debuted with 1983's The Songstress, few could have predicted the impact she would have on modern R&B music. Toni Braxton owes much of her career to Baker's sultry sound, although she lacks Baker's jazz instincts. Like few artists, Baker has successfully combined jazz and R&B into a commercially successful format. Since her first major label album, 1986's Rapture, critics have praised her for her Sarah Vaughan-tinged vocals, and singles such as "Sweet Love" and "Caught Up in the Rapture" have become modern classics. While she enjoyed melding '80s production styles with classic R&B, she departed from this sound on her fourth album, 1990's Compositions, relying more on live performance and delving deeper into jazz. The result was one of her best releases, and the track "Lonely" encapsulates Baker's distinctive singing style.
Written by Baker, "Lonely" is a slow-burn torch song that allows her to showcase her powerful vocals. As Greg Phillinganes' smooth piano chords glide behind her, she begins crooning in a lower range: "You don't know what I've been through/ It's been rough I'm telling you." As the song progresses, her voice dramatically rises in volume and pitch, leading to the chorus: "I tell you a story about a lonely girl/ Had no one to love her in the whole wide world/ You know she was lonely," she cries, Phillinganes' piano also rising in volume. Indeed, his instrument is as crucial to setting the blues and jazz-like mood as Baker's voice.
At first, the refrain tells the story in the third person; after the second verse, Baker has transitioned to the first person narrative: "I'll tell you my story about a lonely girl/ Had no one to love me in the whole wide world/ You know I was lonely," she sings, gradually building to the emotional bridge. Here her rich voice dramatizes her transformation from lonely woman to lover: "Unlock my chains, come and set me free/ I'm a different woman, look at what you've done to me" she sings. "I'm walkin' on over, and I'm depending on you to answer/ Won't cha be my friend, hey baby." The way her voice soars on the word "baby" alone both thrills the listener and portrays her longing and passion.
Toward the end of the track, her voice fades out, allowing the band to carry the song to its conclusion. Clearly her talents command a top-notch band, and players such as Phillinganes, percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, and guitarist Earl Klugh certainly fit the bill. Again, the piano takes center stage, although drummer Steve Ferrone expertly drives the beat while not overpowering the other musicians. "Lonely" efficiently showcases Baker at her best, singing live before a band with no 80s-era electronic instruments in sight. While not strictly a jazz singer, Baker's vocal chops on this track demonstrates her ability to inject a jazzy style into an otherwise standard R&B track.
Baker's subsequent discs, 1994's Rhythm of Love and 2004's My Everything, returned to her 80s sound of incorporating modern sounds into "quiet storm" music. Fans anxiously await her next album; a notorious perfectionist, Baker has postponed its release several times. While all her works contain strong material, her Compositions album remains her most artistically satisfying, a near-perfect showcase for her unique vocal stylings. "Lonely," one of its outstanding tracks, establishes why Baker ranks as one of the 80s and 90s' best vocalists, and how her influence looms large on modern soul music. One can only hope that Baker's next move will be a welcome return to the Compositions era.