(October 21, 2023).  When it comes to Motown’s greatest albums of all time, critically speaking, people often cite iconic titles like What’s Going OnTalking BookStreet SongsLet’s Get It On, or Songs in the Key of Life.  

For a younger generation, maybe even Boyz II Men’s second album, II, enters the conversation.  

Rarely are the words “Can’t Slow Down” mentioned.

And yet that’s the title of the album by Lionel Richie that holds the distinction of being the biggest-selling LP in Motown Records’ 65-year history.

And given the state of album sales these days plus the fact that Motown has been reduced to a subsidiary label whose biggest names now are Lil Yachty and YoungBoy Never Broke Again, it’s probably safe to say Lionel’s Can’t Slow Down will hold that distinction for a long time to come, if not forever.

It was exactly 40 years ago this week, on October 14, 1983, that Motown released Can’t Slow Down.  Containing just eight tracks, Lionel’s sophomore solo LP was a menagerie of dance-pop, country and R&B with all five of its officially released singles reaching the Billboard pop top ten, including a couple of iconic No. 1 tunes— “Hello” and the album’s kickoff smash “All Night Long (All Night).”

In 1983-84, long before streaming and today’s chart rules made it a regular thing, that kind of top-ten occupancy was especially noteworthy.  Only one other album had generated at least five top-ten hits up to that point: Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which put seven of its nine tracks in the Hot 100’s top ten between November 1982 and March 1984.

In many ways, Can’t Slow Down was Lionel’s mini-Thriller.  It was certainly a bit of a departure for Richie whose bread had been mostly buttered by soft, at times country-leaning pop ballads—even with his otherwise soulful and funky former group the Commodores. It was how he had become known as the Black Kenny Rogers in some circles, which served as both a complimentary and derisive description, depending on which crowd you were surveying.

With rare exception, every one of the top ten pop songs on which Lionel sang lead prior to late 1983—including with the Commodores–had been ballads.  These included 1976’s “Sweet Love” and “Just To Be Close To You,” 1977’s “Easy,” 1978’s “Three Times a Lady,” “1979’s “Sail On” and “Still,” 1981’s “Endless Love” (with Diana Ross) and “Oh No,” 1982’s “Truly,” and 1983’s “My Love.”

The exceptions were the danceable “Lady (You Bring Me Up)” by the Commodores and Lionel’s earlier mid-tempo 1983 hit “You Are.”  (Note: Lionel didn’t sing lead on the Commodores’ other earlier top ten hit “Brick House”).

So, it was to many fans’ surprise—and their ultimate pleasure—that the first single out of the gate from Can’t Slow Down was the uptempo, calypso-styled partier “All Night Long (All Night),” featuring Richie in a faux-Caribbean accent that was about as natural sounding as late comedian Rodney Dangerfield doing rap (which he did that same year, btw).

But it (Richie, not Rodney) worked…to perfection.

“All Night Long,” with its African-Caribbean influences, shot to the Billboard top ten within a month of its release and would reach its No. 1 peak the same week Can’t Slow Down entered the album charts (at a lofty No. 15–also remarkable, by that era’s standards, especially for Black artists).  

Within three weeks, Lionel would have the No. 1 pop and soul album and the No. 1 pop and soul single—all simultaneously—a quadruple crowning only Michael Jackson had ever pulled off previously (eight months earlier with Thriller and “Billie Jean”).

Unlike “Billie Jean,” however, Lionel also managed to top the Adult Contemporary chart with “All Night Long” just as he had with all of his prior solo singles, further proof that his built-in fan base would come to the Richie party whether he was dolling out sappy love ballads or doing the mambo.

“All Night Long (All Night)” by Lionel Richie (1983)

“All Night Long” was all mambo. And while it wasn’t anything close to authentic as far as Richie’s faux island dialect was concerned—and we all knew it—we didn’t mind; the song was still pure fun.  Coming at a time when pop music began to feel upbeat and optimistic again, after two years of an adult contemporary and country-pop snoozefest, people truly embraced the song’s inescapable melody, its steel drum and conga-infused rhythms, and those faux (or were they real?) African chants.

Lionel himself has said “All Night Long” contained made-up jibberish, specifically the African-sounding chant during the bridge whose lyrics the singer says he didn’t have time to have a translator authenticate.  

It wasn’t until 40 years later—during a trip to Kenya and Tanzania this summer—that this blogger was reminded that “jambo, jambo” (repeated twice in “All Night Long”) actually means “hello, hello” in Swahili. 

Whether or not the lyrics were dead-on, the song itself was like a mood-enhancing drug—it wasn’t cool to admit you liked it, but upon repeated consumption, many people loved it and found themselves unable to turn it off.  It was the ultimate feel-good tune.

While “All Night Long” was in the midst of a four-week stay at No. 1 on the Hot 100 (holding off Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney’s “Say Say Say” for three of those weeks), Motown released the next single from Can’t Slow Down: “Running With the Night.”

And the Richie blitz was on.

“Running With the Night” was another uptempo number—a synth-pop dance track that kept Lionel in the fast lane and would have him borrowing from Jackson’s playbook for the song’s video.

Directed by Bob Giraldi—the same guy who had helmed “Beat It” earlier in 1983–“Running” featured Lionel in dimly lit surroundings (in this case the street alleys remained and the seedy pool hall setting of “Beat It” was replaced by a hazy wedding reception where a then-unheard-of Sheila E. portrayed a lonely wallflower while the bride and groom and other guests partied happily around her).

Meanwhile, Lionel and his merry band of coupled-up dancers, which included the late Michael Peters (one of the two knife-wielding gang-leaders in Jackson’s “Beat It”), two-step their way through city streets and, ultimately, to the wedding they end up crashing. When Lionel makes his entrance, he spots his damsel Sheila E., makes his play, and the rest is history.

“Running with the Night” by Lionel Richie (1983)

Clearly, when it came to dancing, Lionel was no MJ, but it didn’t stop Motown’s top star from borrowing heavily from the King of Pop’s aesthetics.

Aside from using the same video director (Giraldi) and choreographer (Peters), with similar visual effects and themes (including syncopated dance as the ultimate unifier of two otherwise disjointed groups), Richie’s video even included some of MJ’s earlier characters.

Remember the old homeless guy Michael flips a coin to in “Billie Jean”?  That guy also makes a cameo in “Running with the Night,” in the same grumpy old role.

The Thriller comparisons didn’t end there.

The title opening track to Can’t Slow Down was almost a direct rip of the bass drum rhythm used in Thriller’s opening tune, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” the same song whose other key distinction—the use of African-inspired chants during its climax—might have influenced Richie to do the same in “All Night Long.”

“Can’t Slow Down” was one of three uptempo tunes on the album (along with “All Night Long” and Running With The Night”) and also one of the three songs not to be released as singles— the other two being the David Foster-produced (and ‘80s Chicago sounding) “The Only One” and the quiet storm soul classic “Love Will Find A Way” (Black radio was all over that tune in 1983-84). 

The album’s other three songs, “Hello,” “Stuck On You,” and “Penny Lover”—all ballads (and all No. 1 adult contemporary tunes)—would be released as singles three, four and five, respectively from Can’t Slow Down.

In fact, “Hello” would be released while both “All Night Long” and “Running with the Night” were still riding the charts.  Entering the Hot 100 during the last week of February 1984, “Hello” gave Richie the rare distinction (at the time) of having three simultaneously charting Hot 100 singles, something MJ had also accomplished with various combinations of Thriller singles.

“Hello” was a brilliant ballad that is probably mostly remembered for its music video (one of four made for the singles from Can’t Slow Down; the only exception being “Stuck on You”).

In the vignette, Lionel plays Mr. Reynolds, a teacher at a liberal arts school who is smitten over a blind, multi-talented student named Laura. In today’s world, it would feel creepy for an instructor to be stalking one of his students as Lionel’s character does, but in the end it all seems very innocent, with Laura gifting her suitor with the ultimate present: a clay face sculpture she creates in his likeness.

“Hello” by Lionel Richie (1984)

Like the album’s first two videos, the short for “Hello” was all over MTV in the late winter and spring of 1984 (ground that MJ had broken for Black artists the previous year), and helped the song become Lionel’s sixth No. 1, including his two with the Commodores, in May 1984.

It also continued a streak in which Lionel had penned No. 1 singles in seven consecutive years beginning with 1978’s “Three Times a Lady,” and continuing with ’79’s “Still,” ’80’s “Lady” (by Kenny Rogers), ’81’s “Endless Love,” ’82’s “Truly,” and ’83’s “All Night Long.”

It also certified Richie as Motown’s most prolific hitmaker at the time. Except for Diana Ross’ “Upside Down” in 1980, every No. 1 pop hit on the Motown label between 1978 and May 1984 was a song written and sung by Lionel Richie.

The fourth single from Can’t Slow Down, “Stuck on You,” was Lionel’s bid to continue that streak. While it wasn’t able to overcome huge No. 1 hits like “Ghostbusters” and “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” the country-pop ballad did manage to peak at No. 3 on the Hot 100 behind those tunes and became Richie’s first country chart single as well, reaching No. 24 there.

“Stuck” was followed by “Penny Lover,” the fifth and final single from the album and the mid-tempo ballad that helped keep at least one Lionel Richie song in the top 40 of the Hot 100 every week from October 1, 1983, to January 5, 1985 (a total of 66 consecutive weeks). Its video, which featured Lionel in a “The Girl is Mine” battle with another guy (that even leads to Richie’s character aggressively pushing the guy during one confrontation), made Richie the first Black artist to record four music videos for singles from the same album—Michael had stopped at three for Thriller—and have all of them featured on MTV.

“Penny Lover” by Lionel Richie (1984)

The success of those singles–the result of Richie’s expert craftsmanship, plus some stellar production work by him and his longtime collaborator James Anthony Carmichael, not to mention Motown’s marketing–are no doubt why Can’t Slow Down made chart history when it became the first album to spend every week of a calendar year (1984) in the top ten of the Billboard 200.

To this day, no album has duplicated that feat.

When people recall 1984, the year many historians have referred to as pop music’s greatest year, they usually cite as evidence landmark releases such as Prince’s Purple Rain, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Tina Turner’s Private Dancer, Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual, the Cars’ Heartbeat City, or Madonna’s Like a Virgin.

Even Thriller, a late-1982 release that had returned to No. 1 in December 1983 (displacing Can’t Slow Down in the process) and was crowned Billboard’s No. 1 album of 1984 (for the second-consecutive year), is thrown into the ’84 mix given that its all-time record-breaking sales marks were achieved that year.

But Can’t Slow Down was the epitome of 1984: optimistic pop tunes filled with lots of synthesizers, catchy singalong lyrics, colorful music videos featuring many of the era’s recurring dancers and actors, and Lionel himself, the affable song craftsman who literally could do no wrong that year.

By the time the 27th Grammy Awards came around in 1985, it was Can’t Slow Down–not Purple Rain, not Born in the USA, not Private Dancer, not Huey Lewis & the News’ Sports–that secured the Album of the Year trophy.

It is this blogger’s opinion that Can’t Slow Down, despite the chart and awards juggernaut that it was, doesn’t get the respect it deserves today.

Sure, people recognize its monster sales (it’s sold more than 10 million copies in the US and 20 million worldwide). Motown’s numbers crunchers might even acknowledge that Can’t Slow Down was singularly responsible for more than half of the label’s revenue during its first year of release.

But few refer to it retrospectively in the same glowing terms they do other landmark Motown albums.

It may not have been a “magnum opus” along the lines of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, or the social statement that placed Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On at the top of Rolling Stone’s most recent update of its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time rankings.

Given its hodgepodge of musical styles, it may not have heralded a singular genre in the same way that Rick James’ gritty Street Songs did punk funk.

But Can’t Slow Down was Lionel’s pop masterpiece, his lightning in a bottle that struck while the iron was hot (okay, maybe a mixed metaphor there).

It was his mini-Thriller.

It was pop’s traditional hitmaker doing what he did best: give his audience the ballads that would soundtrack many a future wedding.

But it also offered a bit more.

Songs like “All Night Long” and “Running with the Night” had returned Lionel to his up-tempo roots (manifested in the Commodores’ earliest hits), but with the pop sensibilities that had made Richie an international superstar. Both those tunes, along with “Hello” (and arguably “Penny Lover,” “Stuck on You,” and the should’ve-been-a-single “Love Will Find a Way”) are considered timeless classics, more so collectively than the songs on any other Lionel Richie solo album.

Richie’s follow-up LP, 1986’s Dancing on the Ceiling, which included his obvious attempt at recreating “Love Will Find a Way” (with the single “Love Will Conquer All”), along with the No. 1 smash “Say You, Say Me” and the No. 2 title track, wasn’t nearly as successful as Can’t Slow Down.

But then, it also wasn’t as good. It would be his last LP for the label (and his last album for the next ten years).

Here’s to 40 years of Can’t Slow Down, one of Motown’s greatest albums, even if it doesn’t always get that superlative.


P.s.: Lionel would continue his No. 1 hit-writing streak for two more years in 1985 and ‘86 with the MJ co-write for “We Are the World,” and Richie’s own “Say You, Say Me,” giving him nine consecutive years of writing No. 1 pop singles.

DJRob (he/him/his), who believes 1984 was surrounded by two of the best pop music years ever, is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

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