House music songwriter and vocalist Crystal Waters has the odd distinction of making a comeback with the release of her second album. After she topped the Billboard singles charts in 1991 with a dance hit called "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)," her ensuing debut album failed to impress critics. She was consequently filed away under "one-hit wonder." Nonetheless, a few years of hard work and careful repackaging saw Waters back in the market, garnering praise and sales with her second album, Storyteller, and another slew of dance hits. This time, critics declared that the quality of her work didn't surprise them--they had always known she had something special to offer house music: an uncompromising house beat that also managed to carry substantial intelligence.
Waters arrived as a music celebrity in adulthood, after a full stint of education and nine-to-five employment necessary to support two children. Since she remains very private about her personal life, the curious can only speculate about the date of her birth, which appears to have been sometime in the early 1960s in Camden, New Jersey. Talking with New American's Karu Daniels, Waters described "south Jersey" as a place where "there is really nothing to do except open fire hydrants and go out and play." She would eventually try to capture that atmosphere in a song, "Ghetto Day," for her second album.
Music made its way into the Waters home on the strength of family history: Crystal's father, Junior Waters, was a jazz musician; her great aunt, Ethel Waters, was one of the first African-American vocalists to appear in mainstream Hollywood musicals. Waters's mother, Betty, described her daughter's childhood activities for Interview's Jeremy Helligar, telling him, "At eleven or twelve [Crystal] was writing poetry about the soul and other deep things. And I would ask, `How do you know about this stuff?'" She took her writing seriously enough to be inducted into the American Poetry Society when she was 14, the youngest person ever to receive that honor.
The shape of Waters's life as a young adult seemed to be directing her towards a practical, middle-class self- sufficiency--nothing glamorous, but highly respectable. She studied business at Howard University; not surprisingly, her creative work dropped off during this period, since she found less time for it. After earning her college degree in 1985, Waters secured a job with the Washington, D.C., parole board, making a living from her business and computer skills that would support her two children. Consistent with her business experience, Waters first approached the music world in 1987 as a behind-the- scenes worker, writing demos for a production team known as the Basement Boys. She secured a writing contract with Mercury Records in 1989.
Given the character and progress of her life to that point, Waters's emergence into the show business spotlight was wholly unexpected. While many performers ply their trade for years before being declared an "overnight sensation" by the music press, in 1991 Waters actually did burst into celebrity on the basis of what appeared to be a fluke. In one of her assignments as a demo writer, Waters penned a song called "Gypsy Woman" for dance diva Ultra Nate and recorded a demo cut of the song. The producers were so taken by her rendition that they drew up a contract with her for that one song, never passing it on to Ultra Nate. The recording had the production nurturance of the Basement Boys, who were known for their hit-making skills.
"Gypsy Woman" topped both the dance and pop charts; on the former, it stayed at Number One for six weeks, and on the latter, it maintained a respectable spot in the Top Ten. Daniels summarized the single's reputation when she recalled that the "song and it's unforgettable, infectious, catchy hook la-da-dee, la-da-da became a little legend in itself." In fact, almost every critic who even briefly mentioned the single immortalized that hook on paper. Helligar called it "the hook heard round the world" and Rolling Stone's reviewer declared that the song's "deliciously nagging chorus `La-da-dee-la-da-da' was indisputably the Hook of the Year." The critic also christened it "a rare bright spot of originality and blessed simplicity amid a '91-long plague of Identikit house records and overwrought remixes." Amy Linden recalled the song's rise for People in 1994, writing that in the "club-music world, dominated as it is by big-mama belters, Waters was a postmodern minimalist, her weirdness a breath of fresh air."
On the strength of the single, Mercury decided to market Waters full strength. She was sent around the country to perform, to talk to the press, and to basically promote herself and her music. In a rush to make the most of her popularity, the record company also asked Waters to cut an album. She produced Surprise in a matter of weeks, penning and recording songs at a pace that deprived her of the opportunity for careful crafting. Her lack of time showed in the results: critics found the album disappointing. A Rolling Stone reviewer argued, "Waters and her production team ... hammer the 'Gypsy Woman' formula into the ground on Surprise, an album made up largely of not-so-subtle variations on the original." Even Waters criticized the recording, telling Billboard in March of 1994 that she "wasn't too happy with the sound of the ... album."
In the New American, Daniels blamed the failure of Waters's debut album on Mercury's marketing tactics, which the reviewer described as "the over saturation of the song and overexposure of the artist." The effects of too much publicity soon became evident in the media's turn against Waters, the most vicious example of which, perhaps, was a parody on the Fox television network's show In Living Color. "I felt like I was in the middle of this crazy whirlwind," Waters revealed in Billboard in March of 1994. "Try to imagine being a really shy person who is suddenly being looked at and pursued by everyone in the world. At times, it was very scary." Bad publicity followed on bad production. Waters was dragged through a lawsuit with a woman performer from another country who claimed that "Gypsy Woman" was her material. Nonetheless, the album produced more dance hits--"Makin' Happy" and "Surprise"-- and did reach gold status.
Waters approached her second album with the lessons of the first in mind. She told the New American's Daniels that she "got off the road in December '92 and started writing the new album." Ultimately, the work took her two years. She determined that she would carefully control the quality of her product this time--and that the quality would be high. "With this album," she told Billboard, "I had to make sure that I could feel good about every word and note. That was--and is--much more important to me than having one gigantic single." She was, at least in part, motivated by the response to her first album; "I tried my best," she recalled for Daniels, "because they are not going to say that I'm a one hit wonder. I can write and I'm gonna write some hit songs."
The first single not only repeated the story of "Gypsy Woman," it also set the tone for what would follow. In its first weeks, "100% Pure Love" escalated through the Billboard charts and saturated radio station playlists. By late October of 1994, Larry Flick was tracing the song's success in a Billboard article, in which he declared, "There is a reason for citizens of clubland to rejoice this week." The single had gone gold, and, explained Flick, "Though gold records are a common occurrence in the pop and urban mainstream, it has been more than a hot second since a house-rooted release ... earned such a high sales profile." In the New American Daniels described Storyteller's second single, "Ghetto Day," as a "splash of mid-tempo, cool retro-funk," an assessment that captured the tune's change in gears. "What I Need" also found favor, breaking the Top Ten on two more Billboard charts.
On the strength of its first two singles, Storyteller found the favor Surprise had missed. Jonathan Bernstein wrote in Spin that Waters "flies in the face of the received wisdom that there are no second acts in American dance music by delivering a full-flavored sequel album." Ernest Hardy wrote in Request, "Waters dazzles by delivering an absolutely flawless collection of state-of- the-club dance music." He concluded with a description of "Daddy Do," noting, "Waters not only turns in her best vocal performance (on her best lyrics), but the controlled frenzy of the production brilliantly, if surprisingly, complements the subject matter." Hardy also pushed the album in a Los Angeles Times article, in which he went into more detail about the substance of Waters's appeal. "Blending hip-hop textures and sensibilities, swinging jazz inflections and sizzling funk with state of the art dance grooves," he wrote, "Waters comes across as a serious talent. At the core of that talent is her lyrical style ..., which fuses many elements--sexy playfulness with compassion, a keen eye for detail with social consciousness."
Recognition for Waters's Storyteller proved that she had come a long way from her initial job with the Washington, D.C. parole board. Late in 1994 the artist augmented her public reputation as a musician with a contract with Ford Models followed by her first struts down the catwalk in European fashion shows. The former computer analyst and "one-hit wonder" found her creativity and talent more than confirmed.
by Ondine E. Le Blanc