Chaka Khan is releasing her first album in 12 years, but don’t call it a comeback. As far as the 10-time Grammy Award-winning legend is concerned, she never left. “I’ve been on the road constantly,” says Khan, speaking from her home in Los Angeles, “doing the songs that everybody loves to hear. Nobody was asking for nothing new.”
Khan, 65, sees herself as a perennial — “a seed that blooms when the season’s right.” Apparently, it’s that time. On Feb. 15 she’ll release her 13th studio album, Hello Happiness (Diary Records/Island Records). Its funky lead single, “Like Sugar,” arrived last June and sparked the global #LikeSugarChallenge, a testament to Khan’s staying power after 46 years in the business. Meanwhile, her current single, the new album’s title track, is a testament to her sunnier state of mind. The LP marks Khan’s first since she decided to enter rehab for prescription drug abuse following the death of her “brother,” and former NPG Records boss, Prince.
Over her career, Khan has talked about various potential one-off recordings, from a jazz album produced by Robert Glasper to a Joni Mitchell covers album. Today, she adds an extraordinary, never-to-be-realized project to the list: a collaborative album she had discussed with Prince and Miles Davis before “they both left.” (Davis played on her 1988 CK track “Sticky Wicked,” which was produced by Prince and Khan.) For her upcoming album, Khan turned to two notable next-generation collaborators: Major Lazer co-founder and Grammy-nominated producer Switch and singer-songwriter Sarah Ruba Taylor (the pair launched Diary Records in 2018). A manager that Khan worked with in 2017 introduced her to Switch’s and Taylor’s music. (Khan’s longtime creative partner, George Robert Fuller, is now helming her reemergence.) Khan was initially under consideration as a guest for a different project, but Switch and Taylor quickly turned their attention to an album of her own.
The three artists have “a mutual admiration,” says Khan, who had never worked in the studio with them prior to recording Hello Happiness. “There was really some good stuff going on.” It took the trio two weeks to record the album, which they did in Los Angeles. Beyond the feel-good title track (“I’m tired of hearing bad news,” says Khan), other standouts include the feisty “Too Hot” and rock-infused “Don’t Cha Know.”
“DJs have been playing me in the clubs since I began my career,” she says with a raspy laugh. “But this is the only time that I went in with the intent of working with dance people who do dance music. I didn’t want to go deep on any of this. I wanted to keep it light and noncerebral. The tracks are the stars.”
It was a change for Khan, whose voice has been front and center on decade-spanning hits since the early ’70s, when the Chicago native born Yvette Marie Stevens began fronting a new group called Rufus, which signed with ABC Records in 1973. The Stevie Wonder-penned and Rufus co-produced “Tell Me Something Good” provided the group’s mainstream breakthrough in 1974. The song won the funk outfit its first Grammy, for best R&B vocal performance, and Rufus later scored six platinum albums and a string of timeless hits: “You Got the Love,” “Sweet Thing” and “Ain’t Nobody.”
After going solo in 1978, Khan sowed her own crop of classics, among them the indefatigable anthem “I’m Every Woman,” “What Cha’ Gonna Do for Me,” “Through the Fire” (which Kanye West interpolated on his 2004 The College Dropout track “Through the Wire”) and her indelible cover of Prince’s “I Feel for You.” Her last solo album, 2007’s Funk This, yielded two Grammy wins, for best R&B album and best R&B performance by a duo or group for “Disrespectful,” featuring Mary J. Blige.
More recently, Khan performed at the 2017 Essence Festival and the 2018 Jazz in the Gardens, and paid tribute to Aretha Franklin during the Queen of Soul’s funeral service last August. She sang “Hello Happiness” during her appearance as grand marshal of the 2019 Rose Parade on New Year’s Day, and will embark on a summer tour with Michael McDonald. Also in the works: a biopic about her storied career.
The secret to her longevity? Khan credits “nothing but Jesus” and pledges she’ll still be kicking it at 90. “Artists can’t retire from this,” she says. “That’s the difference. We weren’t trained in colleges, we don’t have any degree. We can’t [quit], because it’s a calling.”