Lionel Richie should have nothing to prove. Amidst numerous Grammys, an Oscar, coveted copyrights, and a mountain of platinum albums, Richie’s musical legacy is intact. So why does Coming Home, his follow-up to Just For You (2004), sound desperate?
Lionel Richie wanted a hit. The obvious formula, then, was to match Richie with sought-after producers and songwriters half his age. That’s the formula employed by “LA” Reid, Executive Producer of Coming Home and Chairman of Island Def Jam Music. Since Richie felt the need to prove that he was relevant enough to hang with the current crop of million-selling tunesmiths, Reid enlisted Raphael Saadiq, Jermaine Dupri, and Dallas Austin, among numerous other producers and songwriters, to determine how a Lionel Richie album should sound in 2006. The results, a Lionel Richie Rorschach test of sorts, are painfully forced.
These producers render Lionel Richie a guest on his own album, rather than the inverse. “I Call it Love”, the first single from Coming Home, hit number one on Adult R&B Radio. Produced by StarGate, the team that made Ne-Yo a star, the song is Richie’s biggest hit in years, but at Richie’s expense. It’s regrettable that his distinct style, a style shaped from 30 years of songwriting and producing, is nearly obliterated in favor of a cookie cutter Ne-Yo arrangement.
Raphael Saadiq fares marginally better with “Sweet Vacation”. The melody and mid-tempo groove would not be out of place on a late ‘70s Commodores album (nestled somewhere between “Just to Be Close to You” and “Fancy Dancer”), were it not for the choir of Saadiq’s overdubbed voice. Unfortunately, the nasality of Saddiq’s voice doesn’t mesh with Richie’s soulful baritone, staining an otherwise spotless production.
Richie’s self-penned songs are dull and self-derivative. “I Love You” is basically a rewrite of “Hello”, a number one hit from Can’t Slow Down (1983). “Out of My Head” and “I’m Coming Home” (two other Richie ballads) cure insomnia while “All Around the World” causes it. In the tradition of “All Night Long” and “Dancing on the Ceiling”, “All Around the World” is the obligatory “party” song but, at best, sounds like an expensive karaoke track. I’d expect much more from Richie, who co-produced the song, than synthesized horns punched on a keyboard. Even “All Night Long”, which was criminally ubiquitous in its day, featured an authentic horn section.
The best tune appears far too late to salvage the album. Gifted by Dallas Austin, “Reason to Believe” succeeds because Austin allows Richie to shine through a tasteful, acoustic arrangement. Unlike the contributions by Dupri, Saadiq, and StarGate, “Reason to Believe” doesn’t straightjacket Richie into someone he’s not. “I just want somebody/ to laugh out loud/I just want somebody/to make me smile”, Richie sings and you actually believe him. Less believable is the second Austin-produced track, “Stand Down”. With a pretty decent reggae rhythm section, Richie adopts the prosody of Bob Marley. I don’t think anyone involved intended for it to be amusing…
If you decide to buy Coming Home, here’s a final word of caution: avoid “Up All Night”. Never has an established artist sunk to such an abysmal low to sound contemporary.
Coming Home is an album that even Lionel Richie fans might dismiss. Though there are glimmers of substance, an album cannot stand on just two or three pretty good tracks. Maybe the crass commerciality of Coming Home will sell to unknowing listeners. Maybe another gold record will afford Richie some latitude to be more faithful to his muse next time around. We certainly deserve better than this.