It’s not just Hollister’s voice that makes you want to join his choir.
2000 was a crowded, exciting time for R&B. Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, Craig David, Avant and Carl Thomas all released their debut albums that year. Joe and Jagged Edge both experienced commercial success on the back of hit singles “I Wanna Know” and “Let’s Get Married,” respectively. D’Angelo unleashed Voodoo (along with an unforgettably tantalizing music video), and Erykah Badu dropped Mama’s Gun. This isn’t to mention R&B-adjacent hip-hop from the likes of Outkast and Nelly or the pop-bleached R&B of Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC.
In the middle of all this came Dave Hollister’s Chicago ’85…The Movie. Released in November of 2000, the album made its way to a respectable 10th spot on the Billboard R&B charts. It was Hollister’s second solo LP (he had been a member of Blackstreet in the pre-“No Diggity” days) and the last of his albums to experience any significant mainstream success. By 2006, Hollister had transitioned into making gospel music. At that point, his R&B career had basically faded into oblivion.
This really shouldn’t have been the case. A return to Chicago ’85…The Movie reveals Dave Hollister at the height of his talent as a vocal performer and with a team of talented songwriters and producers in his corner. It’s an album that can go pound-for-pound with just about any R&B record of its day. Hollister’s baritone is the anchor on the LP’s 14 songs, but his ad-libs give him the chance to really show off. “I’m a living witness,” he belts on “Take Care of Home,” as the track nears its end; “Everybody sing with me,” he instructs as “Doin’ Wrong” approaches its conclusion. Each song seems to work Hollister into a dizzying passion, which he expresses with a kind of dignified warmth. He never loses control, but listeners still can’t keep up with his zealous style. These songs are fun as hell to sing along with until that’s just no longer possible: Hollister’s voice is just too damn good.
But it’s not just Hollister’s voice that makes you want to join his choir. Chicago ’85…The Movie features a host of stirring, catchy melodies that build up over the course of three-and-a-half to five minutes. This isn’t quite the cinematic soul of Isaac Hayes or the Temptations—their songs stretch on for upwards of 10, 15, 20 minutes. Yet somehow the tracks here have a similar effect. Take “We’ve Come Too Far,” a song written and produced by accomplished duo Tim Kelley and Bob Robinson, perhaps most famous for co-writing and co-producing Sisqo’s “Thong Song.” The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” influenced that notorious hit’s string arrangements, and a similar kind of ambition is at work in their production for Hollister.
“We’ve Come Too Far” begins with layers of hi-hat-heavy percussion, Rhodes piano, acoustic guitar and electric bass. Hollister speaks gently over the track’s introduction: “Hey, baby listen/ I know we’ve been through our share of problems/ Been through our share of ups and downs/ But we, we’ve just come too far to throw it all away/ Wait a minute, let me/ Let me do it like this.” Then we get into the first verse, which doesn’t seem like much until transfigured in its back half, as Hollister sings, “I see the pain baby/ Deep in your eyes/ Even though you’re smiling.” This is less metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly than sudden shift from snake to bird: the melody and his voice lift off to put listeners in immediate touch with his lover’s emotional trauma. We make our way to the song’s chorus, another kind of transformative launch. “We’ve come too far,” it goes, by way of crashing drums. A choir of voices—really just layers of Hollister’s own voice—performs the words. By the way, all of this unfurls in the track’s first minute. And if this first minute of the song weren’t miraculous enough, the build-up to its final, fervent moments will remove the sandals straight from your feet. A tempestuous, cymbal-crashing bridge quiets to showcase a burbling organ and Hollister improvising over a few concluding repetitions of the chorus. “Baby, I’m sorry for coming home so late at night,” he apologizes, in perhaps one of the most elaborate renditions of “I fucked up” ever recorded in human history.
Chicago ’85…The Movie isn’t structured like a Hollywood film. Instead, its dramatic relationship roleplay is something of truly biblical proportions. There are desperate pleas, arguments, break-ups, side chicks, drug deals, fake-ass fathers, temptations and reunions. One minute Hollister is insisting, “If you think your girl wants the world/ Just give it to her,” and the next he’s waxing poetic about the girl he’s cheating with. The lyrics are full of contradictions, but that’s the point—all the better to reveal how monogamous romantic relationships are elaborate, method-acted performances. “I can love you forever, eternally,” goes one of the final ad-libs on the album. Based on what came before, we know that this is a total fiction, but its complete sincerity wins us over anyways.
Perhaps there’s a way that the LP only really works in the context of other R&B albums from the era. For example, it was just a few months into 2001 that Lil’ Mo released Based on a True Story, an album that works as a perfect response to Chicago ’85…The Movie. If Hollister’s album is supposed to suggest that all relationships function as a series of ups (expressions of love and destiny) and downs (infidelities and lies), Mo’s album counters that that’s not good enough. Late ‘90s and early ‘00s R&B tended to function as a battle of the sexes, and Mo’s concluding “Get the hell out of here” provides a significant glimpse of the defiant other side.
In terms of sound, too, it’s fascinating to hear Chicago ’85…The Movie navigating a space between the two major R&B trends of the era: hip-hop-driven tunes on the one hand and neo-soul on the other. The album never quite hits the dance floor, but it brings a rapper’s level of bravado and street wisdom on mesmerizing, acoustic guitar-driven “Yo Baby’s Daddy” and on “I Don’t Want to Be a Hustler,” the only track on the album that Hollister co-wrote. The latter doesn’t really fit into the album’s wild romantic trajectory—it’s addressed to his mother, rather than a lover—but it’s an important side-note. Full of Wizard of Oz-inspired melodic chanting, the track acts as reminder that a life built on the brick road of incessant work usually fails to settle down comfortably into domestic bliss.
On the neo-soul side of things, “One Woman Man” is a rare instance of a successful R&B single (it landed 49th on the Billboard Hot 100) that’s also the best track on a consistently outstanding album. The song is a stripped-down reminder that all you really need is keys, drums and voice to make a memorable tune. Here, Hollister is the perfect partner we all deserve. “You are lookin’ good as hell/ But I can’t go home with you/ Because I’m goin’ home to her,” he asserts. He’s confidently flirting and turning down a proposition all at once, but this is one moment that doesn’t seem like a contradiction. Instead, it’s pure romance, a bit of hair trapped in a camera’s lens—just another nuance on an album full of complicated, almost legendary pleasures.