You kids out there might not believe it, but there was a time when Paris Hilton pal Nicole Richie was not the most famous member of her family. Her father, Lionel Richie, was a prolific schmaltz machine back in the '80s, a slightly smoother Barry Manilow capable of taking the blandest of sweet nothings -- "Girl, tell me only this, that I'll have your heart for always" -- and making people melt. No doubt, many of you youngsters were, ahem, imagined while his lovey-doveyness played in the background. (If "Three Times a Lady" gives you chills, consult your parents.)
If your mom and dad tended to be a little freakier, then they probably wooed each other with the music of one of Richie's female counterparts in popped-out R&B: Patti LaBelle. The high-coiffed dynamo had a lot more bite to her, from her "Lady Marmalade" days with the '70s rock-soul hybrid group LaBelle to her shout-along solo hits "New Attitude," "Stir It Up" and "On My Own," a duet with that shaggy Muppet of a man, Michael McDonald. LaBelle always sounded like she'd just taken a wee hit of helium, but the soul-kissed diva could flat-out blow.
As a potential thrill for gone-gray music fans, both Richie and LaBelle released new albums this month, his "Just for You" and her "Timeless Journey." The good news is that neither commits the embarrassing sin of trying to hip-hop it up to keep pace with today's stars, and both have retained full access to those know-'em-anywhere voices. That said, only one of the former chart-toppers has retained the intangible star power to turn routine adult pop into radio-ready magic.
It's hard to imagine that Richie was responsible for the Commodores' hubba-hubba ode to full-figured women, "Brick House." It's easier to imagine his part in the wimpy "Hello" video, in which a blind woman made a terrifying clay bust of the singer's head. But at 54, Richie has rediscovered his knack for party tunes. The funked-up "Outrageous" and the sambafied vamper "She's Amazing" are a wedding-DJ's dream combo, with the singer doing his silly faux-bad-boy howl over beats that are not so wicked that Grandma will fall on her keister.
Too bad the rest of "Just for You" is mostly mid-tempo mush, with the New Agey title track and blechy phone job "I Still Believe" better suited for passing out than making out. Since his heyday, Richie has gone through a couple of divorces, a nasty bout with depression and writer's block, but he fails to tap into that mother lode of anguish here. The poor guy just sounds spent, settling for gauzy elevator arrangements that stink of Celine Dion. The disc's only decent weeper, "Time of Our Life," was produced and co-written by relative youngster Lenny Kravitz, who apparently remembers Richie at his best: at the piano, feeling bittersweet and pleading to a woman who's about to bolt. Sure, they borrow the hook from Richie's Kleenexian classic "Still," but hey, at least it's a hook. "Time of Our Life" is sad -- but for all the right reasons.
There's nothing sad about LaBelle's "Timeless Journey," and why should there be? About to turn 60, she looks absolutely fantastic, and her adorably octave-climbing pipes still have that bratty-girl sass that made "Gitchie, gitchie, ya ya da da" so fun to sing out the car window. The new songs are relatively safe -- steady mid-tempo beats, glittery keyboard swirls, unobtrusive backing vocals -- but her pure joy in delivering the goods is infectious. You can't help but grin at the guys-back-off album opener "More Than Material" ("Who I am is not what I wear, and what I think has nothing to do with hair") and the boys-come-closer grinder "Mm Mm Mm."
When it comes to self-empowerment, the gone-preachy Mary J. Blige could learn a thing or two from seasoned pro LaBelle. "New Day" ("Seems my life is finally coming together, feels so good, don't think I've ever been better") has a head-nod beat and hands-in-the-air chorus on which LaBelle hits notes that singers half her age would kill for. "Not Right but Real" and Babyface's "Sometimes Love" are emotion-rich breakup ballads about giving a good-man-gone-bad the heave-ho. And album closer "When You Smile" is fueled by Latin-grooved percussion from tub-thumper Sheila E. and a serpentinely sexy guitar solo from Carlos Santana. When LaBelle sings, "Being here right now is all I want to do," even kids will appreciate that getting old doesn't have to mean sounding old.