In some respects, this is an album in the shadow of another.
Diana Ross’ 1980 release, Diana, made with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, is rightly revered, but 1979’s The Boss is as sharp, sophisticated and sassy as its successor: an entirely whole, cohesive piece of work shaped by another pair of remarkable songwriters and producers, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson.
This is apparent from the opening track, “No One Gets The Prize,” as it makes the jump to lightspeed from the deceptive, down tempo swell of its intro, driven by bursting brass and a rocketing rhythm section. Diana brings forceful vocal drama to a tale of rivalry between friends, with one of the most adult lyrics she has ever sung (excerpt: “She schemed and dreamed and told him dirt…I told him all the boys she’d hurt”). It’s almost Shakespearean, with ethereal harmonies behind her like a witches’ chorus, passing judgement, forcing her to admit, “She lied/I lied/We lied.”
The next act, “I Ain’t Been Licked,” is just as compelling. This is the story of a comeback — the lady herself has had a few — underpinned by another mature lyric, and high-energy backing vocals from the gospel according to Nick and Val. Indeed, Ashford’s piercing, utterly distinctive falsetto adds to the momentum. This is rhythm & blues born of gospel, the same profound union as, say, Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get A Witness,” sixteen years earlier.
Diana stays close to church for “All For One,” one of the album’s two ballads, and sways to a climax which declares “We’re all God’s people/Under the sun.” She has seldom sounded so engaged, and the only surprise is that the song hasn’t entered her in-concert repertoire: it has all the arm-swaying audience appeal of “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” The other ballad on The Boss, “I’m In The World,” showcases an impassioned Diana once again, and sympathetic piano work by Valerie Simpson.
The singer and the songwriters aim more explicitly for the charts with “It’s My House,” an undeniably catchy tune built on woodwind and brass. Like the melody, the lyric is rather obvious (“You say you want to move in with me”), but that reinforces why it was a Top 10 hit in the UK when released there as a single. “Once In The Morning” also plays to the gallery (“Seven, when I rise/Eleven, close my eyes”) and leaves little to the imagination, but Diana sings her heart out, and so does Nick Ashford, in back.
Nick and Val always recruited fine musicians for their work, most often in New York, and The Boss is no exception. Michael Brecker, for instance, delivers a magnetic sax solo during the second half of “Sparkle,” while others in the crew (including guitarist Eric Gale and bassman Anthony Jackson) play with equal feeling. Other longtime Ashford & Simpson associates are also present, such as background singers Ullanda McCullough and Ray Simpson, keyboardist Ray Chew and arranger Paul Riser.
As the album’s title track, “The Boss” is its center of gravity, its north star. The thumping metronome rhythm meshes with rattling percussion, fluid bass and rhythm guitar lines, and uplifting brass to give Diana a platform from which to soar and, yes, to wail. This is among her finest recorded performances, tailored knowingly to the clever lyric (“A guide in my pocket for fools, follies and fun”) and she knows exactly where to place the emphasis, where to ad lib, where to pause. She is The Boss.
With Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, Diana demonstrated a willingness to push aside complacency, to push herself musically, to reclaim a musical edge which superstardom can sometimes dull. But before that, Nick and Val put her in the mood. They ain’t been licked.
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