Lionel Richie’s ‘Can’t Slow Down’ Turns 30
Without the pomp and circumstance that should come with it, Lionel Richie’s unofficial magnum opus, an LP with a certain advantage over Prince’s Purple Rain, turns 30
By the time Lionel Richie left the Commodores to go solo in 1982, he was in a very good position to step out on waters. Unlike fellow Motown star Michael Jackson who dabbled with solo albums while cooking up albums with his brothers, Richie remained steadfast to his classmates from Tuskegee, Ala. and had proven to be the head honcho of the Commodore brand as the band’s signature lead singer and songwriter. A good chunk of the checks were now going to him because of his role as primary hit maker, thanks to radio favorites such as “Easy,” “Three Times a Lady,” “Sail On” and “Just to Be Close to You.” But those hits were all lush AC-packaged ballads, something that strayed away from the conscious of funk that once defined their live shows. The Commodores did end their heartbreaking association with the big presence of Richie on the Top Ten hit “Lady (You Bring Me Up),” a swan song that put Richie’s voice on a comforting dancefloor ditty even if he had no part in writing it.
Signing with Motown as a solo act made economic sense for both parties. Richie, still a risk without his road buddies, needed a label that believed in him, and Motown needed a new kind of star, someone like Michael Jackson who had just stormed the world of R&B with Off the Wall and was now transforming into a global superstar with Thriller. Richie’s 1982 self-titled album, produced by the Commodores’ right hand man James Anthony Carmichael, featured “Truly” and a rousing cherry pop number (“You Are”) and worked its magic on the ears of those hungry for what the Commodores lacked on their ‘80’s albums. Still, it felt incomplete and possessed more of Richie’s romance ballads than the splatter of uptempo numbers that makes a definite package feel worthwhile. His follow-up album, 1983’s Can’t Slow Down, would correct that problem.
Music critic Robert Christagu wrote that “this surprisingly solid album bids fair to turn into a mini-Thriller.” Charming words coming from the herald rock critic; Thriller, a versatile set showing off rock, funk, post-disco and even adult contemporary and a large constellation of Top Ten gems, was a groundbreaking success that reigned on the pop charts for the last couple of months of 1982 and throughout all of 1983. Can’t Slow Down – selling well over ten million copies in the US alone – rested in Thriller’s shadows, but proved to be just as competent as Jackson’s masterpiece. Thanks to its faux-Carribean lead single “All Night Long (All Night),” the album gave Richie the perfect platform to go into larger markets. “All Night Long” was a party anthem dressed with worldbeat lavishness and proved to be Richie’s greatest entry into dance-driven workouts. “Running With the Night,” a mysterious pop tune lavished with glowing synths and pop-rock magnificence, also was a different risk on Richie. Along with Jeff Porcaro’s excellent drumming, Toto’s Steve Lukather jumps in to give Richie a hearty guitar solo, which supplies the six-minute album version with a sense of danger. Of course, adult contemporary radio wanted a safer version; a shorter four-minute version excluding Lukather’s shredding was ultimately created. But “Running With the Night” reigns as the superior uptempo gem, especially as it floats from its calmer introduction into a dazzling chorus and vamp decorated with Luther Vandross-styled backing vocals (Richard Marx is also on board). Recalling the power of Quincy Jones on the early output of early-Eighties R&B is also important to understanding why Can’t Slow Down sounds so good. His influence was felt especially on “Love Will Find a Way,” a gem co-authored by Quincy Jones’s piano man Greg Phillinganes. The six-minute tune, glowing with Richie’s emotive vocals, piano flourishing and smooth jazz add-ons, walks with a strut so reminiscent of Anita Baker and Luther Vandross records. His ballads are also in fine condition: “Penny Lover” gives him room to serenade a slow cooker with the vocal extremity of Sam Cooke; “Stuck on You” hearkens back to his country-tinged standouts from the Commodores; “Hello” is simply poetic and raises the bar on Richie’s lyricism (“Hello, is it me you’re looking for?”).
At this point, one only wonders which extremity Richie sounded best on. The ballads, in most places, may get the most nods, but they are predictable when recalling just how synonymous Richie had become to the slow jam. If one were to give the God-honest truth, Can’t Slow Down is completely rescued by the uptempos. Figuratively speaking, his follow-up album Dancing On the Ceiling didn’t even contain a better set of infectious workouts. Plus, the album’s driest moment heard on the David Foster-directed “The Only One” is overdone in AC schmaltz.
Glancing over the album’s personnel is also a moment of pride for Richie’s shining star. Keyboard wiz Thomas Dolby returns to Richie’s side, after playing on his self-titled album; Jerry Hey’s horn arrangements sends “All Night Long” to ecstasy; the work of drummer John “J.R.” Robinson, L.A. session percussionist Paulinho da Costa and killer bassists (Abraham Laboriel, Nathan East) is also apparent on the disc.
Although the album – originally released on October 11, 1983 – has somehow distanced itself from all the critical flattery over the years, it still stands out as one of the treasured albums of the Eighties. It has aged pretty well, and will go down in history for beating Prince’s Purple Rain at the Grammys in the category of Album of the Year.
At press time, a 30th anniversary reissue of Can’t Slow Down had not been announced by the folks at Universal Motown. The most recent expanded edition of the album was in 2003 which featured original tracks, 12” inch versions of “All Night Long” and “Penny Lover,” two instrumentals and a second disc full of outtakes, demos and alternates.