In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
It’s not easy to make a Janet Jackson record. Janet Jackson was never an insanely talented singer like Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, and she had a formula — ebullient vocals over hammering dance-funk production — that should’ve been fairly replicable. But other than Janet’s former choreographer Paula Abdul, nobody ever quite managed to achieve any kind of sustained success by doing Janet Jackson things. Something about Jackson’s whole presence just couldn’t be copied.
If anyone could’ve made a Janet Jackson record in 1991, then it probably would’ve been Karyn White. Karyn White was a strikingly beautiful woman and a gifted singer with a proven track record of hits. She also had access to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Janet Jackson’s primary collaborators. In fact, White didn’t just have access; she was on her way to marrying Terry Lewis.
But “Romantic,” Karyn White’s sole #1 hit, mostly plays as a distant echo of the kinds of things that Janet was doing two years earlier on Rhythm Nation 1814 — a hornier generic-brand version of a Janet Jackson track. (Janet Jackson herself wouldn’t start making hornier music until a couple of years later.) “Romantic” might’ve been a #1 hit, but it was the type of #1 hit that fades from collective memory immediately after its one week on top. Karyn White’s other hits, the ones that don’t sound like Janet Jackson songs, have lingered much longer. “Romantic” isn’t a terrible song, but it’s a clear Janet imitation, and it’s nowhere near as memorable as the real thing.
Very early in life, Karyn White decided that she was going to be a star. White grew up in Los Angeles, and she started competing in beauty pageants at age five. (When White was born, the #1 song in America was the Beatles’ “Yesterday.”) White’s mother was the choir director of their church, and White started singing in that church as a kid. She took dance lessons and acting lessons. She auditioned for a touring production of Dreamgirls when she was too young to take the role. She auditioned to replace the departing Jody Watley in the funk band Shalamar in 1983, but she didn’t get the spot. (Shalamar’s highest-charting single, 1979’s “The Second Time Around,” peaked at #8. It’s an 8. Jody Watley’s two highest-charting singles, 1987’s “Looking For A New Love” and 1989’s “Real Love,” both peaked at #2. “Looking For A New Love” is a 9, and “Real Love” is an 8.)
Karyn White didn’t get to join Shalamar, but she still elbowed her way into the music business any way she could. When she was 18, White co-wrote “Automatic Passion,” which would later become an album track for the R&B singer Stephanie Mills. (Stephanie Mills’ highest-charting single, 1980’s “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” peaked at #6. It’s a 7.) For a little while, White sang for the LA band Legacy, then toured as a backing singer for the R&B singer O’Bryan. (O’Bryan’s highest-charting single, 1982’s “The Gigolo,” peaked at #57.) She did session work, singing backup for Howard Johnson and the Dazz Band and Ray Parker Jr. and Supertramp and Bobby Brown.
While she was on the session grind, Karyn White got to know the former Tower Of Power singer Michael Jeffries. A demo that White recorded at Jeffries’ studio got the attention of someone at Warner Bros., and both White and Jeffries got hired to sing on Private Passion, a 1986 album from the smooth-jazz guy Jeff Lorber. Karyn White sang on the single “Facts Of Love,” a dance-pop track that peaked at #27. Soon afterwards, both White and Jeffries signed with Warner.
In 1988, Karyn White released her self-titled debut album. She recorded most of it with the fast-rising team of Babyface and LA Reid, and those guys knew exactly how to present her. “The Way You Love Me,” her first single, was a loping, midtempo track that tapped into the new jack swing zeitgeist without letting the drum machines go full jackhammer. The song topped the R&B charts, and it made it to #7 on the Hot 100. (It’s a 7.) On the follow-up single “Superwoman,” White sang about being neglected and frustrated, and she once again went #1 at R&B and top-10 on the Hot 100. (“Superwoman” peaked at #8. It’s an 8.) These days, “Superwoman” is far and away Karyn White’s best-remembered song, and it’s got about five times as many Spotify plays as any of her other tracks.
That first Karyn White album was a genuine hit. It went platinum, and its first three singles were all #1 hits on the R&B charts. The third was the Babyface duet “Love Saw It,” which didn’t cross over to the Hot 100 at all. But another Karyn White track, the freaky new jack swing banger “Secret Rendezvous,” became her biggest Hot 100 hit yet, peaking at #6. (It’s a 7.) With that first album, White showed that she could compete in all sorts of arenas. It was a very good start.
In 1989, Karyn White’s friend Michael Jeffries was making his own self-titled album for Warner, and White came in to sing a duet. Jeffries recorded that album with the team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis; it’s one of the few Jam/Lewis productions that sunk without a trace. After working together on that Jeffries duet, White and Terry Lewis became a couple.
When Karyn White made her 1991 sophomore album Ritual Of Love, she wasn’t working with Babyface and LA Reid anymore. Instead, Jam and Lewis produced much of the LP. The two of them co-wrote and co-produced lead single “Romantic” with White. “Romantic” is an extremely 1991 song. The beat is new jack swing cranked up to house tempos, and the lyrics don’t even really bother with innuendo: “When the night falls, I hear seductive voices sing/ Romantic songs of love/ Let’s get intimate.” Jam and Lewis go in heavy on the orchestra-hit keyboard sound, which is fine with me. (I got a Casio keyboard around that time, and I would just spend hours dicking around with the orchestra-hit setting. My dad would be like, “Stop doing the hellhammer sound!”) Jam and Lewis also use a few samples, like the shrieking bleeps from the intro of ESG’s 1981 funk-punk classic “UFO.”
“Romantic” is a track full of sounds that I like. Juiced-up drum machines? Horny lyrics? Orchestra-hit keyboards? That ESG sample? I am into all of those things. I’m into Karyn White’s voice, too. On those first-album singles, White showed that she had serious chops, but she never really oversang. She also projected personality without ever settling into a single persona. She always came off as a star, and “Romantic” really should be my kind of song. For some reason, though, it never fully connects.
On “Romantic,” Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ production crowds out Karyn White’s voice, and it doesn’t give her any room to establish her own presence. On top of that, it’s thin, not stuffed with buoyant layers of melody like so many of their Janet Jackson tracks. The lyrics are generic boudoir stuff, and the hook doesn’t register. It’s fine, and I like when it descends into near-industrial chaos on the bridge, but the song never stands out. It sounds like three people playing catchup with whatever else is on the charts, not like a pop star truly finding her voice.
After “Romantic,” Karyn White never returned to the top 10. She followed that single with the pleasantly breezy “The Way I Feel About You,” which wasn’t a Jam/Lewis production and which peaked at #12. The Ritual Of Love album stalled out at gold. Karyn White married Terry Lewis in 1992, and she released her third album Make Him Do Right in 1994. On its lead single “Hungah,” she once again worked with Jimmy Jam and her husband, but that single peaked at #78. Her next single, the Babyface-written “Can I Stay With You,” peaked at #81, and Karyn White hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since.
After Make Him Do Right, White essentially left the music business. She and Terry Lewis divorced in 1999, and she started buying and flipping houses. White has come back to show business intermittently since then. She released an album called Carpe Diem in 2012, and she had a recurring role on Beauty And the Baller, a cable sitcom that ran for one season in 2017. Her Instagram is full of photos of her with fellow R&B veterans, and she still looks amazing. But the Karyn White that people remember is the “Superwoman” Karyn White. “Romantic” might’ve been a #1 hit, but it’s the kind of #1 hit that disappeared without a ripple.
Once Billboard started using SoundScan to figure out the Hot 100, #1 hits like “Romantic” became more and more rare. I don’t know whether “Romantic” was a legit #1 hit or whether enough people did enough favors to push the song to the top of the pop chart. Either way, “Romantic” is a product of its era, and that era is where it will remain.
BONUS BEATS: The “Romantic” 12″ single has a bunch of remixes with funny names: “Romantic (Passionate Beat Mix),” “Romantic (Candlelight Mix),” “Romantic (Sensuous Mix).” My favorite is “Romantic (Moonlight Mix),” which stretches the song to seven and a half minutes and brings out those chaotic funk elements. Here it is: