Meli’sa Morgan’s debut album, Do Me Baby, is all about the backup singers. Yet in the context of the LP’s eight tracks, it hardly makes sense to call them backup at all. The vocalists reliably anchor each song’s melodic core, and they’re also perfect conversation partners for Morgan, who takes and shares the ruminative lead.
Morgan began her career in music as a backing singer herself and worked in that role with some of the most talented vocalists of her era, including Whitney Houston and Chaka Khan. Around the same time, she joined two groups: Shades of Love, whose “Body to Body (Keep in Touch)” briefly rocked the dance charts (in 1982 and again in the mid-‘90s), and High Fashion, another momentarily successful R&B act. With personal knowledge of what it means to hold a spot in the limelight without the stardom to match, Morgan would use Do Me Baby to bring what’s usually behind the scenes to the front and center.
Exhibit A: “Heart Breaking Decision,” Do Me Baby’s second track. Here, the additional vocalists carry the song’s hook: “Heartbreaking decision/ Should I give in again tonight/ Heartbreaking decision/ This time promise, you’ll treat me right.” In fact, they lead the way. They sing “heartbreaking” (twice), “should I give in” and “this time promise,” which cue Morgan’s parts. They also highlight the dramatic bridge which occurs around the three-minute mark, deconstructing the hook by rearranging its words—mostly the ones that had previously been Morgan’s purview—and gasping in time. This is it: the decisive moment (the break) at the song’s center (the heart).
If you’ve listened to anything by Meli’sa Morgan before, you already recognize that the privileged position of the other singers has nothing to do with Morgan’s own abilities as a performer. Her voice, in fact, is a marvelous thing to behold. Poised between the earth-shaking élan of Chaka Khan and the hard-fought passion of Mary J. Blige, Morgan’s voice motions towards the sky from a decidedly human vantage point of trembling desire and uncertainty. The vocals on “Heart Breaking Decision,” for instance, open with a seconds-long sigh from Morgan that sounds despondent and anxious in a totally angelic way. Unfortunately for her and fortunately for listeners, even divine beings have relationship problems and can’t help but think about those problems frequently.
Every song on Do Me Baby revolves around some difficulty or miscommunication that threatens to annihilate a relationship. Opening track “Fool’s Paradise,” which became the basis for Blige’s parts on Jay-Z’s “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” discusses a lover who injudiciously believes that being single is preferable to being with Morgan. (They’d better think twice!) “Now or Never,” a quiet stormer if there ever was one, insists that her indecisive partner choose—right now—if they want to be with her forever. And “I’ll Give It When I Want It” is the consent anthem of your most vivid dreams, but the lyrics assert her authority out of concern that her paramour is getting ready to cross the line she’s drawn: “Just in case you get any ideas/ This is still my game.”
This brings us to “Getting to Know You Better,” Exhibit B. Even though the title may seem to imply otherwise, there’s a relationship issue here, too. “Your every scheme was designed to keep my mind in confusion,” Morgan sings, and things devolve from there. “It seems the thing that you said to me/ Was nothing but lies,” she explains. Still, she can’t quite stay away, so she gets to know her lover a little more intimately once night falls. But can such carnal knowledge reveal deeper truths about devotion?
As in Exhibit A, the backup singers take the lead on hook duty, although this time they sing every word. “Getting to know you/ Getting to know you better/ Getting to feel you/ Getting to know you better,” the chorus goes. Leaving this part to her crew allows Morgan to ad-lib more expansively, more wildly. (One can almost see the admiration registering in their faces as Morgan hits her every note.) A similar effect plays out in the bridge, where the extras also build the vocal base. “I-I’m getting to know you/ I-I’m getting to know you very well,” they tease. The joshing is an affirmation that carnal knowledge does provide its share of tangible insights, even if it’s not quite at the nucleus of what Morgan initially wanted.
“Getting to Know You Better” is also the most cleverly orchestrated track on an album full of great arrangements. It opens with a Janet Jackson “Control”-style burst of synth and percussion that disappears only to rear its head once more, towards the song’s ending. This reappearance connects directly to its cerebral conflict. How is it possible to know someone’s true feelings when they reveal only certain of their aspects at a given time? Being is movement, the structure argues, impossible to pin down but sexy nonetheless. Morgan herself co-wrote almost every song on the album, so she deserves the lion’s share of credit for their distinctive, complicated shapes.
On the other hand, the “almost” is pretty significant. Exhibit C, “Do Me Baby,” is the one track on the album that Morgan wasn’t involved with writing. Unfortunately, it would also turn out to be the only song from her solo career that charted in the Billboard Hot 100 (its peak was position 46). Originally appearing on Prince’s Controversy, the track describes a desire so intense that it can wait no longer. Prince’s version expresses his own brand of falsetto-wielding submission, but Morgan’s version—highly complimented by Prince himself—is truly epic.
In the first few seconds, it might just sound overly conventional and perhaps even unfairly absent of Prince’s passion. Keep listening. The plunking bass, steady 808 slap and barely audible calls of (synthesized) horn eventually make way for the album’s most impassioned call-and-response:
Singers: “Do me, baby”
Morgan: “Like you never done before”
Singers: “Oh, give it to me”
Morgan: “Till I just can’t take no more”
Singers: “Do me, baby”
Morgan: “Like you never done before”
Singers: “Ooh, I want you now”
Morgan: “I just can’t wait no more”
The presence of the singers here effectively turns a personal plea into an expression of universal longing. It doesn’t even have to be sexual for it to make sense. Morgan’s version asserts that to be done by someone is to feel their love in a way that halts time and condenses it down to few notes, sung together. The bridge intensifies this: “Do me!/ Do me, baby!/ Do me!/ Do me!/ Do me!/ Do me!/ Do-do me, baby!” Her accomplices hit the notes, while Morgan’s voice surges around their glorious structure unto infinity.
Such moments make Do Me Baby an absolutely spectacular experience that strives for community, togetherness and dialogue as salve for toxic energy. This is not external to the album’s condition of perpetual arousal but part and parcel with it, wrapped in plastic. As the generosity towards her singers shows, this is an album that refuses to glorify competition. We are all here desiring, it suggests, so we might as well try to help each other shine.