CD Review: Vanessa Williams, “The Real Thing”

It’s been more than 25 years since Vanessa Williams was crowned the first black Miss America. But once nude pictures of the former photographer’s assistant were published without her consent in Penthouse magazine in the summer of ’84, she was forced to relinquish the title. After all this time, the question remains: whatever happened to Bob Guccione?

Williams, of course, bounced back quickly from the scandal, scoring first as a singer with pop-R&B albums like The Right Stuff (1988) and The Comfort Zone (1991), and the hit ballads “Save the Best for Last” and “Colors of the Wind.” She then transitioned into acting, starring on the big screen in Eraser (1996) and Soul Food (1997) and earning a Tony nomination for Into the Woods. Since 2006 she’s played over-the-top villain Wilhelmina Slater on TV’s Ugly Betty, but if the Ritalin-deficient rhythms of that sitcom have you reaching for the remote, you may appreciate the subtler approach of her latest record, The Real Thing (Concord).

It’s Williams’s first album of (mostly) original, non-holiday material since 1997′s Next, and as she says in the liner notes, “My initial musical direction for this Concord CD kept morphing from Brazilian … to torch songs, big band and R&B.” All four styles show up on The Real Thing, along with four different producers, but Williams has the confidence and soft touch necessary to pull it off, not to mention that the album’s overall adult-contemporary sheen smooths out any and all bumps in the road connecting the various genres.

The track that best sums up the LP is a cover of Barbra Streisand’s “Lazy Afternoon” (1975) — The Real Thing is “grown folks’ music” for a do-nothing summer afternoon, something to put on in the background as the clouds drift past and you relax before hosting a dinner party. And guess what? The Real Thing is perfect background music for that occasion too! Ask for it by name at your local Starbucks, hotel bar, and/or smooth-jazz station, but ask gently — Vanessa’s trying to set a mood here, after all.

That’s meant as a compliment. At this point in her career, Williams has nothing left to prove; she can handle being the last thing on your mind as you coordinate table settings or order a latte. So even if the tempo rarely rises above mid- and the temperature remains a safe 98 degrees throughout, she made the album she wanted to make. The restraint pays off with the breezy charm of songs like “Loving You,” a jazzy slow-burner written by Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and Carole Bayer Sager; the soft-rock track “Just Friends,” another ‘Face composition that also features his backing vocals; and “The Real Thing,” a Latin-flavored Stevie Wonder tune first recorded by Sergio Mendes in 1977. Wonder’s presence is also felt on “October Sky,” a duet with Javier Colon, who invokes the Motown legend’s effortless charisma.

Confidence and charm can’t rescue “I Fell In,” which sounds like it was discovered in a pile of rejected soundtrack ballads from the ’80s, and there’s nothing here that comes close to Williams’s smokin’ 1991 cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Work to Do” — which turned the original’s sexism on its ear — but her creamy vocals elevate even the weakest tracks on The Real Thing. A quarter-century after it looked like she’d become a footnote to pop-culture history, Vanessa Williams has proven she’s the real thing too.

Just Friends
Lazy Afternoon

The Real Thing is available at Amazon.com.