By Waiching Liu
Debbie Allen is multi-talented for sure; she can dance, choreograph dance routines, act, direct, produce & write.
So when I discovered 2 years ago that she released an album back in 1989 titled 'Special Look', my reaction was, 'wow!'. I had no idea she was a recording artist back in the day.
Today, some people still don't know Debbie released an LP of original tracks. As for getting hold of the songs and listening to them, it was hard to track the full album down, until last month I stumbled upon melody centa.com, a website, which has the full playlist of 'Special Look' LP tracks.
I've seen reviews, scores for this album that range from 3 out of 5 to something like, 1, 2 stars. The latter of which is pretty harsh to say the least. People balked when Debbie decided to become a pop star. Yet as an entertainer, why not expand your horizons by branching out & try something different? & She did. Debbie has done a bit of singing during her time on Broadway in musicals, as well as on the Fame TV series and during the Fame U.K tour back in 1982 that accumulated in an album entitled 'The Kids From Fame' released the same year . But 'Special Look' is the first - and only occasion where she has gone down the full pop/R'n'B route.
Having listened to the album in full, and in spite of the lack of success this album and her single(s) had charted, I must say this is a really, good effort.
She may not be the best singer, ever and yet, I find there is a unique tone to her vocals in this R'N'B LP. I don't quite get all the negativity Debbie got in regards to her singing- she can actually sing; and I'm not just saying this as a fan of hers, but as a fan of pop music in general.
Released in 1989, there are a total of 9 tracks, most of which are very up-tempo and is reminiscent of stuff like Pebbles, Paula Abdul, Jody Watley. The one ballad on Special Look is 'Holding Onto Love'; generally, I am not a sucker for ballads but this one was okay. The songs are slick and well-produced and musically and sound-wise, they are of the highest quality. The production is very Jam & Lewis/LaFace -esque: what surprised me about Debbie's singing was not only was it really, really good, it was light years different to Fame and singing 'Star Maker' and 'Body Language'. But Fame was more of a musical, it felt like a musical. This album, on the other hand, is very 80s pop R'n'B.
It was the era of New Jack Swing after all and it is very commercial and mainstream. The 80s was a great period for music and in particular, at the time, many actors, actresses from TV and movies did branch out and made the transition towards music. Examples include Kylie Minogue, Vanessa Williams to name. I guess, Debbie wanted to, well I wouldn't say jump on the actor-turned-singer bandwagon, but she wanted to try something different, after years being an actress and dancer. And music was the avenue she sought to take full advantage of.
Highlights for me are the title track, 'Special Look', which has a really kick-ass intro, 'He said, She Said' (Debbie's erm, rapping in the bridge part was pretty cool- I loved it!), 'More Than a Man', where the intro sounds incredibly like Janet Jackson's 'What have you Done For Me Lately?', 'Love Club' and 'Rock Me Steady' - my favourite joint from the whole LP, & a song I mistakenly thought was a cover version by The Whispers when it isn't (and as The Whispers track was titled 'Rock Steady'), as well as 'Love of All Time', which she co-wrote. The latter of which has me jammin' and singing!
Thankfully, there isn't a single cover version to be found throughout this album, and that is great because it's always good to have original songs over an album mostly consisting of cover versions. It is a shame the album didn't get a lot of airplay; alas, it went unnoticed by many and Debbie's attempts at cracking the pop market didn't take off as it should've done. The reason ''Special Look'' bombed for her wasn't because she didn't have the vocals for a pop singer cos' she does,- it just wasn't marketed and promoted well enough by her management team and record label. And the songs were well-written' any other female 'R'N'B singer at the time would've recorded and sung those as well as and besides Debbie herself. So yes, she too could've carved a successful & longer pop career similar to that of her friend and fellow actress/singer, Vanessa Williams.
But all was not lost- Debbie later ventured into directing, producing, choreographing and acting, and so it's not as if she has had an uneventful showbiz career.
Special Look will be remembered by some fans like myself as an under-rated, under-appreciated yet rare gem of an album that deserved better and more radio airplay. Had this album sold really well, maybe we could've got a follow-up LP after that, but alas, it was not to be.
If there is one minor gripe, it is that it could've done with 2, 3 more extra songs because I would've wanted to listen to more material from Debbie.
Other than that, Debbie, you did really good, 'honey'!
Scores (out of 10)
Sound production quality: 10
Favourite tracks: Special Look, He Said She Said, Rock Me Steady, More Than A Man, Love Club, Keepin' It Under Cover, Love of All Time
*Rating out of 10: 8