12/26/1988 at 01:00 AM EST
As everyone knows, bumblebees can't fly. Logic tells us that the bee's body is too big and its wings too small, and thus the humble bumblebee, bowing to irrefutable reason, walks everywhere it goes—or takes public transportation.
By the same sort of logic, Tracy Chapman could not have had one of the best-selling albums of 1988. She's a folksinger. She plays an acoustic guitar. Her themes are complicated. She is not flamboyant, and she is very, very angry. In "Talkin' 'bout a Revolution" she warns that "poor people gonna rise up and take what's theirs." Other lyrics touch on wife beating, lazy cops, race riots and love turned to psychosis. Freighted with such weightiness, her debut LP, Tracy Chapman, could not have leapfrogged over Def Leppard, Guns n' Roses and Steve Winwood to become a No. 1 album—yet in August, it did. Some record buyers, like bumblebees, don't follow the rules. Chapman, in the words of one writer, has become "the new artist of the year, maybe the new artist of many years."
Tracy, 25, grew up poor in Cleveland and attended prep school and college on scholarships. She lives in Boston, seldom gives interviews and has a dry sense of humor that doesn't appear on her record. Prodded by a literal-minded inquisitor about exactly what kind of car she had in mind when she wrote "Fast Car"—a dire ballad about escaping poverty—Chapman allowed that it might have been a Dodge Aries, but then again just maybe it was a Toyota Corolla.
Bumblebees are seldom so playful, and neither, in her work, is Chapman. Her wit is abrasive and uncompromising, with the rough feel of truth. Maybe that's why her audience—so white, so comfortable, so far from the hard life—is so taken with her ungentle vision. To a smug world, Chapman's songs are a bracing slap. Her lyrics aren't teasing; they sting.