When Keith Sweat released Make It Last Forever back in 1987, the album counted as a significant watershed moment. The record came during a period when R&B music was calling out for a facelift and at the right time when a genre renovation was most possible. The traditional grandiose soul and black music from the ‘70s were on its way out, while disco was little more than a joke. On top of that, another great experiment in music, the creation of rap was still in its nascent years. Along with an influx of new recording technology and a willingness to tinker, the stage was for the new jack swing craze, a genre that fused the fundamental elements of rap and R&B together for a frenetic yet smoothed-out product that even Michael Jackson experienced success with.
The roots of the new jack swing sound begin with Teddy Riley. The producer and singer (of Blackstreet and Guy fame) met fellow Harlemite Keith Sweat at a battle of the bands. What’s interesting is that Riley never wanted to produce R&B records. “ I had no formula. I had no plans to do R&B music. New Jack Swing would've been just rap if I didn't get with Keith Sweat,” Riley told the Atlantic in 2012. The two quickly got to work on what would turn out to be Make It Last Forever. While Riley had been making music steadily since he was a teen, Sweat took a different road to songwriting. The singer studied City College in Manhattan and became a stockbroker, working the New York Stock Exchange during the day and recording demos in his free time.
By the time Sweat linked up with Teddy Riley, they had both made a name for themselves in the New York City area, and they both complemented each other. Riley described the recording process as “organic,” and also convinced Sweat to sing the songs in his trademark nasally voice that made Sweat’s later music. “We worked together on the melodies and arrangements. I was the one that made him take the chance of keeping his voice with that nasal sound,” said Riley. “He didn't want to do it. He walked out on me in the studio because he didn't want to sing that way.”
The decision paid off handsomely. The album is short and sweet at eight tracks and instantly shot to No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts and peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard 200 giving Sweat an instant hit record. The album’s two lead singles (and best songs on the album) were mostly responsible for the record’s success. “I Want Her” is essentially the blueprint for the new jack swing sound. The song grooves and pulses with a palpable energy that Sweat’s vocals glide over. It’s a delicate balancing act that made new jack swing, that mixture of power with an updated R&B romanticism that was hot yet never overtly crass. “Make It Last Forever” on the other hand is a classic ‘80s R&B ballad with a snappy drum machine backbone that probably sounded like the future when it came out in ‘87.
The album itself not only launched the careers of both Riley and Sweat but also spawned some imitators and lit a match to the new jack swing movement that dominated the tail-end of the ‘80s and part of the ‘90s. Even though Sweat strayed away from new jack swing as time went on, Make It Last Forever is still Sweat’s most solid statement as an R&B innovator. “The music scene at the time when I came out was good but I helped to make it better. I don’t take credit for it because you had people like the O’Jays out and New Edition, those type of people,” said Sweat in a recent interview. ‘I just added to what was already out there with a different type of vibe.”