It is no small thing to invite comparison between your own first live album and one of the greatest live albums ever made—even if the person who made that classic record is your father, and even if you are a Grammy Award-winning phenom in your own right. But such is the bright boldness of Lalah Hathaway, who recorded her new album at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles, the site of her father’s legendary 1972 soul recording, Donny Hathaway Live.
Lalah Hathaway was only 10 years old when her father, the genius singer-pianist whom one critic dubbed “the young Mozart of soul,” died in an apparent suicide that many linked to mental illness. In the song “Little Girl,” Lalah Hathaway describes herself as a child “hiding in the shadows of the light.” Her infant cry is captured on her father’s biggest solo hit, “The Ghetto,” and her young face is memorialized in Ebony magazine’s account of his 1979 funeral. But since her 1990 debut album, Lalah Hathaway has been emerging from her father’s shadows into her own light. Lalah Hathaway Live testifies to this process.
That her recording career has already outlasted her father’s by 15 years reflects the two artists’ divergent fates and sensibilities. Where Donny Hathaway sprinted to fame, driven by ambition and woeful underappreciation, Lalah Hathaway’s ascent to national acclaim has been slow and deliberate. Musically, in place of her father’s soul-baring intensity, she offers a breathy, spacious approach: more warmth than heat, more light than fire. In contrast with her father’s clarion cry, her signature tone is deep and mellow; hers is a voice full of breath. The “diva next door,” a down-to-earth prodigy with major skills but no airs, she replaces her father’s often-haunted look with a gorgeous, 1,000-watt smile.
In her liner notes to Lalah Hathaway Live, she writes that her father’s live album “fueled much of [her] creative vision.” But her kinship with her father is less aesthetic than it is ethical, less a matter of similar sounds than a shared commitment to musical excellence. In the era of formulaic pop singles and Auto-Tuned vocals, her inventive live performance makes a case for a singer who can sang.
She opens the set with a nearly note-for-note rendition of “Little Ghetto Boy,” her father’s tough-love anthem of caution and encouragement for young black men abandoned to the streets. She also sings “You Were Meant for Me,” a midtempo ballad her father recorded in 1978. But her album otherwise features her own sensual songs of love and inspiration, along with hits by Luther Vandross and Anita Baker—a quiet-storm fusion of jazz and R&B. The orchestration, a seven-piece band graced with shimmering chimes and tranquil, female backup singers, displays Hathaway’s aesthetic of breath and space; so does her unhurried, even diffuse, approach to timing.
She also creates space or distance from some lyrics. Whereas Donny Hathaway’s interpretations always enhanced lyrical meaning (listen to his live version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” and see why Lalah Hathaway has said that for years, she assumed her father had written it), his daughter mellows out the mood by subordinating message to melisma. On a song like “Lean on Me” (which features pianist Robert Glasper), her embellishments are not always lyrically motivated, although they are harmonically stunning. Sometimes they are both: “When Your Life Was Low” ends with an incredible run from the low end of her range up to the rafters.
Her shows at the Troubadour allowed Hathaway to honor not only her father but also artistic mothers, such as Patti LaBelle and Anita Baker, both of whom were present in the audience that night. She sings a beautiful rendition of Baker’s “Angel” that braids three of Baker’s other hit songs together. She also invokes her own mother, a classically trained vocalist who imparts at least half of Hathaway’s vocal gifts and the woman who, as she sings in “Little Girl,” raised “two baby girls … alone.” When she segues from “Little Girl” into a song called “Breathe,” she reflects her own growth and stakes out her own ground. Where her father prompted his audience to sing, she urges hers to “remember to breathe”: “Take a second right now and breathe.”
Apart from “Little Ghetto Boy,” Lalah Hathaway Live does not include songs of social commentary. But the singer’s insistence on breath and space is especially resonant at a moment when black girls’ and women’s right to breathe freely and to inhabit public space is under spectacular duress—when neither their cars nor their pool parties nor their classrooms can protect them from the stranglehold of the state. In this context, Hathaway’s album carves out a much-needed space for communal admiration and joy. Sustaining the past without fearing that it might be too much to bear, she declares herself still standing, breathing, beaming.
Emily J. Lordi’s book Donny Hathaway Live will be published by Bloomsbury in the fall of 2016. She is an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature.