UNFORGOTTEN : Tracy Chapman ‘Tracy Chapman’ (1988)

What happens to a dream deferred?Langston Hughes’ question — posited in the 1951 poem ‘Harlem’ — continues to assume further urgency fifty years after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Its poignancy, as evidenced by WYNC’s  “50 Years After MLK: A Dream Deferred” panel held at the Apollo Theater this February, requires we think critically about the challenges that remain to achieving genuinely lived (not merely formal) equality. Thirty years ago today, folk artist Tracy Chapman‘s self-titled, debut album encouraged Reagan Era listeners to engage with pervasive societal issues with a delightfully transgressive and resolutely hopeful message. 

Opening with ‘Talkin’ Bout A Revolution,’ which Chapman played during the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert, the album’s creative form largely follows its political function. Primarily an acoustic effort, Tracy Chapman’ immediately establishes itself as a black, feminist, and working-class folk-rock protest album as Chapman declares, “Poor people gonna rise up / And get their share / Poor people gonna rise up / And take what’s theirs.” Despite oppression’s persistence, one wholeheartedly believes our resistance is gaining momentum as Chapman suggests. While ‘Talkin’ Bout A Revolution’ holds its own as one of Chapman‘s best works, immediate follow-up ‘Fast Car’ is the quintessential — or, at least, most popular — Chapman record. 

A veritable emotional journey, ‘Fast Car’ relies upon a bittersweet, circular narrative that finds our protagonist encountering the same relationship issues her own parents faced. (We accept the love we think we deserve, no?) Beyond this song’s challenging, semi-autobiographical lyrics, Chapman effortlessly dazzles listeners with a simple country-meets-proto-alt-rock sound. Given the early placement of these two standout gems, a first-time listener might worry the remaining tracks will sharply drop off in quality. If Tracy Chapman‘s debut were a lesser work, such fears may prove justified; however, to one’s joy (and utter surprise), we’ve not yet heard Chapman‘s most politically important or aesthetically interesting effort.

‘Across The Lines’ finds Chapman bemoaning racial violence through ambiguous imagery. As “[t]wo black boys get killed / [o]ne white boy goes blind.” While this lyric initially suggests an “eye for an eye” response, one might also reasonably interpret the lines as implying white people’s collective refusal to acknowledge complicity in systematic racism. The musical equivalent to Spike Lee’s ‘Do The Right Thing’ (released in 1989), the track speaks to our contemporary society. Lest one assume Chapman offers simple variations on a standard, acoustic-driven blueprint, ‘Behind The Wall’ finds a solo Chapman singing a cappella about domestic violence and police indifference before ‘Baby Can I Hold You’ concludes Side A with a not-too-saccharine melody drenched in synth-pop splendor. Lyrically, the record offers a moment of respite; just as a revolutionary must remain mindful of self-care so as not to burn out, Chapman retreats into a lover’s arms, which in itself is an act of political resistance.

At this point, audiences may enjoy Side B’s arguably superior artistic worth. ‘Mountains O’ Things’ weds a traditional beat with a scathing take on consumerism and wealth accrued by “[e]xploiting other human beings.” Follow-up track ‘She’s Got Her Ticket’ features a muted, prototypical reggae guitar riff whereas the blistering ‘Why?’ oscillates between frenetic verses and ironically cheery refrains. Here, Chapman asks, “Why are the missiles called peace keepers / When they’re aimed to kill / Why is a woman still not safe / When she’s in her home” before sardonically declaring, “Love is hate / War is peace / No is yes / And we’re all free.” Despite being one of the album’s shortest tracks, ‘Why?’ — in turn a possible allusion to Nina Simone‘s ‘Why? (The King of Love is Dead)‘ — finds Chapman at her most defiant, tempting audiences to place the song on repeat.

‘For My Lover’, a dusty, heart-wrenching narrative that possibly touches upon same-sex, interracial, or even abusive relationships rewards ongoing analysis. Sonically, ‘For My Lover’ presages Kurt Cobain‘s 1994 cover of Leadbelly‘s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’. While Nirvana (and a slew of other white male acts) would ride this sound to social prominence and financial success, that a black female musician transgressed a predominantly white space (despite rock and folk’s traditionally black roots) during hair metal’s zenith reveals this album’s cultural significance. Moreover, that Tracy Chapman flawlessly incorporated disparate influences throughout her debut (‘If Not Now…’ is a smooth, piano-heavy groove) while ’90s alternative rock became a caricature of itself solidifies her creative genius.

Thirty years after its release, ‘Tracy Chapman’ remains a necessary album. Apart from perhaps being the greatest debut of all-time (a status which, unfortunately, foisted unwieldy demands upon the burgeoning artist), the album’s themes offer lessons for contemporary society. Astoundingly, Tracy Chapman‘s immaculate first offering has never been remastered or reissued; given both vinyl’s resurgence and  — more crucially  — the dream we continue to defer, it would seem appropriate to bring this relatively overlooked artist and classic album back to the forefront of our collective imagination. In doing so, we may begin to overcome this 21st-century ennui with a rekindled desire for equality. 

Tracy Chapman Debut
‘Tracy Chapman’ was released via Elektra on 5 April, 1988.

The full tracklist is as follows:

1. Talkin’ Bout A Revolution
2. Fast Car
3. Across The Lines
4. Behind The Wall
5. Baby Can I Hold You
6. Mountains O’ Things
7. She’s Got Her Ticket
8. Why?
9. For My Lover
10. If Not Now…
11. For You