When Anita Baker vanished from the music charts and the public's view a decade ago, the sound of R&B was already changing from the lush love ballads that made her 1986 album "Rapture" a multiplatinum hit to what we know today: more and more graphic expressions of lust laid over more and more thunderous beats. (Think R. Kelly.) Baker may or may not have seen that coming, but she knew something was out of whack. Her early-'90s tour with Luther Vandross was reportedly fraught with contention, and she was butting heads with the new CEO of Elektra Records, Sylvia Rhone. One ex-Elektra employee recalls regular screaming episodes, and a durable rumor has it that Baker once slapped her boss. Baker dismisses this story and says she and Rhone had "different agendas and different visions, but we were always professional, no matter what the rumors say." (Rhone could not be reached for comment.) After the release of her last album, in 1994, she battled her way out of her Elektra contract and retreated to her 15-room mansion in Detroit to take a rest from the drama.
She didn't get it. While Baker got to see her two sons (now 10 and 11) grow, she had to watch both her parents die after long illnesses and suffered strain in her 12-year marriage. She signed a deal with Atlantic in 1995 but couldn't write a new album. "The music wasn't there, the words weren't coming, and that was because I was spending most of my time at the nursing home doing what every child must do at some point in their life--caring for an ailing parent or, in my case, parents. I lost the Atlantic deal, and that's the first time I've ever lost a job in my life. I was devastated." But Baker, a onetime legal secretary from Toledo, Ohio, knew all along she'd get back to music, and the results are here this week: "My Everything," an Anita Baker album in her classic mode, with arrangements by jazz master George Duke, a duet with Kenneth (Babyface) Edmonds and that unmistakable throaty voice. In sound and style, it picks up just where she left off 10 years ago. "I just do what I do," says Baker, 46. "The music was coming to me, and it wouldn't stop. It had been a long time since that happened. I know the industry has changed, but that doesn't bother me. I've never been one to do what everybody else was doing. I do what works for me." Works for us. "My Everything" won't break into what's now mainstream radio, but if even half of her old audience finds the album, she won't have to worry.
Baker began her comeback two years ago, when her mother died after a series of strokes. (Her father had died of bone cancer in 2000.) "I had to have somewhere to put my grief," she recalls. "I had to let it out, and the best way was to sing and perform again. I called my agent and told him that I didn't care what nightclub or small place he could book me in--I just wanted to sing." To her surprise, her sporadic appearances in smaller cities began to sell out, and requests for more performances kept coming in. "I needed that so badly, that affirmation," she says. "To know that I had a career, still, was a pick-me-up for the ages." Given her long absence, the changes in the industry--and her diva reputation--Baker assumed she'd have to settle for a distribution deal with a record label and finance a new album out of her own pocket. But Blue Note Records, home to Norah Jones, decided to take a chance. "Everyone missed the type of R&B Anita Baker put out there," says Ron Gillyard, president of black music at the edgier Interscope. "She had a huge base of fans that still yearn for her sound. Any good record company could see that."
But Baker's determined not to get back into the same old high-pressure drama. She took her time working on "My Everything," and her two-album contract with Blue Note allows her to keep wearing her mommy hat. "I only work two days a week, so I'm not away from the boys and my husband too much," she says. "And my record company so got it and so understood that. I had to learn to prioritize my life, because I have been the woman who tried to do everything, and I was miserable." It's not surprising that the most affecting track on the album is "The Men in My Life," a song that dates back to the birth of her first child. "I thought it was too sappy when I first wrote it," she says. "But after Luther released 'Dance With My Father,' I thought the time was right for it." Baker has even tried to heal the memories of that tour with Vandross--who suffered a stroke last year--sending flowers and prayers. "I've been there," she says. And back. For good, let's hope.