Lionel Richie - Just Go (2009)

Lionel Richie
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"You like me! You really like me!" Like Sally Field's exclamation at the 1985 Oscars, Lionel Richie has, for the better part of three decades, played for the affection of popular music fans with a seemingly unquenchable desire to please. A talented singer with an uncanny sense of melody, Richie has been anything but "the ever tortured artist."  He has instead parlayed his talent and his rarely-erring sense of what the public wants to become one of the most popular and likeable musical star in the world.

"You like me! You really like me!" Like Sally Field's exclamation at the 1985 Oscars, Lionel Richie has, for the better part of three decades, played for the affection of popular music fans with a seemingly unquenchable desire to please. A talented singer with an uncanny sense of melody, Richie has been anything but "the ever tortured artist."  He has instead parlayed his talent and his rarely-erring sense of what the public wants to become one of the most popular and likeable musical star in the world.

It was tough not to like -- or to see -- Richie often during his commercial peak of 1982 - 1986 following his exit from the Commodores.  With a string of number one hits and major concerts, his role in the seminal charity song "We Are The World," and a geneal personality that earned him regular gigs hosting awards shows, he achieved a level of popularity that rivaled Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston. But following a very public and messy divorce, Richie virtually disappeared for the better part of a decade.  The music world went on without him and by the time of his return in the mid-90s, he was no longer at or near the leading edge of popular culture; his signature (and somewhat formulaic) sound that highlighted melodic, simple piano ballads with just as easily digestable poppy dance tunes had fallen out of favor.  So, since his 1996 comeback album, Louder than Words, Richie has largely been chasing trends, trying to remain relevant in an everchanging musical world, and relying more extensively on outside writers and producers to shape and update his sound.

Richie appeared to find a comfortable place on 2001's Renaissance, working with producers Rodney and Fred Jerkins, but lost it again three years later with the disappointing Just For You.  By 2006's Coming Home, he had pretty much turned over the keys to relative youngsters such as popular producers Stargate and Dallas Austin.  His reward was his biggest hit in years with "I Call It Love," a solid track that sounded like a Ne-Yo outtake but which gave Richie radio credibility again, if not artistic distinction. Coming Home was the completion of a two decade process for Richie in which he transitioned from one of the most sought-after songwriters and producers to a guy riding in the back seat while young producers drove the car. Unlike, for instance, the Isley Brothers, who have used producers such as R Kelly to simply sharpen their own distinctive sound, Richie has increasingly become a guest vocalist on his own albums, filling a spot that could have just as easily been plugged with a Bobby Valentino, J Holiday or Ruben Studdard.

Richie's newest release, Just Go, continues that trend.  The gang from Stargate is back, recreating "I Call It Love" twice on the new disc via "Forever" and "Pastime," both that team's typically solid compositions. And Richie skews to even younger audiences this time around, bringing in the ubiquitous Akon on not one but two songs: "Nothing Left to Give" (which owes more than a small debt to Richie's own "All Night Long") and the title track.  Producer Tricky Stewart (Rihanna, Britney Spears) helms the largest portion of the disc, including the first single, "Good Morning," as well as the requisite club track, "Somewhere In London." And Richie even revisits his "We Are the World" days in the expansive world peace 'n love anthem "Eternity," which -- while formulaic (yes, a full Gospel choir is included) -- certainly sounds like Lionel Richie, circa 1985.  But perhaps the most quintessential Richie track is "A Face In the Crowd," a sweeping duet with Dutch pop singer Trijnt Je Oosterhuis, who nearly overpowers Richie with her strong performance.  The song's massive structure and great hook are clearly aimed at Richie's sizeable European audiences, and could be the international hit that Richie is looking for with the disc.

For Lionel Richie's longtime fans who are looking for his musical imprint, Just Go will be a frustrating listen.  But as on his other albums of the past dozen years, Richie's mission here does not appear to leave his mark on the music, but is rather to assemble a "product" that will appeal to his adult contemporary audience and bring along as many young'ens along as possible.  And like the CEO of a corporate conglomerate, Richie hires the best talent around to make that happen, even if his role is reduced to that of mouthpiece. In that regard, I must admit that Just Go is start-to-finish hooky and generally well-written and performed.  And while the album is generic enough that it could have been issued by any of a couple of dozen relatively faceless young R&B singers occupying urban radio in 2009, Richie should receive the credit for putting the pieces together and delivering an album that is immensely listenable, if not particularly distinctive.  Mission accomplished, I guess. Moderately recommended. 

By Chris Rizik

 

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