After three years as one of the beautiful bodies shaking it on Soul Train and seven belting it out with the disco-funk group Shalamar, Jody Watley decided in 1987 to throw herself the splashiest coming-out party a girl could want. She did it by releasing Jody Watley, her hit-spawning solo debut. That record, and the equally successful 1989 follow-up, Larger Than Life, put her first among disco dollies at a time when Lisa Lisa, Stacey Q, Taylor Dayne, and, yes, Whitney Houston were elbowing each other for supremacy in the field. Watley didn't (and still doesn't) have Houston's power vocals or Lisa's street smarts, but her version of beat-driven seduction amply displayed on her 1989 hit, ''Looking for a New Love'' has loads of saucy charm.
With Affairs of the Heart, she joins again with longtime producer Andre Cymone for what Watley, in promotional interviews, has spoken of as a ''departure'' that demonstrates her social conscience. The deepest stab at ''message'' dance-pop, however, is the title tune, which Watley claims is inspired by Marvin Gaye's highly political ''What's Going On.'' But what's going on in ''Affairs of the Heart'' is vague talk about committing ''to yourself and those you love.'' On the rest of the album this new Watley is not to be found and that's just as well. Affairs may be unserious dance fluff, but Watley's commitment to the music is real. She sings love songs as if they matter, and the record turns out to be another solid collection of heavy-breathing dance workouts.
Watley makes her bluntly physical take on romance clear from the start. The album's opener, ''I Want You,'' is surely the dirtiest set of come-ons since Donna Summer's 1977 ''I Feel Love'' (parents might want to keep the little ones away from the orgasmic heaving at the, ahem, climax). It seems that songs about the simplest emotions give Jody the room she needs to underline shades of expression. Clever sequencing finds Watley making a passionate case for monogamy (''Always and Forever''), only to find later that ''always'' doesn't always mean ''forever'' (the crestfallen ''Until the Last Goodbye''). Even her high-energy moments show conviction. Like Madonna's ''Holiday'' in the newly AIDS-aware '80s, Watley's buoyant ''Dance to the Music'' promises temporary relief in difficult times: We can ''leave our worries behind,'' she sings, and dance till the sun comes up.
Affairs of the Heart has its duds. Two awkward inspirational numbers, ''Commitment of Love'' and ''It All Begins With You'' (sent in by a guy she met while shopping), do nothing to showcase her very accomplished voice. That voice gets to shine elsewhere the beat-happy ''Strange Way'' dubs Jody singing low over Jody singing high and they both sound terrific, while ''Stolen Moments'' lets her be tough, tender, breathless, and hopeful, all before the chorus. The finest moment of all comes when ''I'm the One You Need'' props '70s funk tricks (peppy background singers and blaring horns) against a thoroughly modern multilayered rhythm track, courtesy of young remix god David Morales. With its relentless beat and fidgety piano, ''I'm the One'' sums up Jody Watley at her best: a delicious mix of dance pop's past and future. B