Give Robyn Her Knock Back

A beloved pop star's Body Talk series withers away to treble

Why does Robyn rap so much? That question may be obligatory: The Swedish pop star's actions seem calculated to confuse, to keep this critic's (and, supposedly, discerning listeners') darling unknowable. She has described her quasi-emcee "voice" as "kick-ass," but it reads more like pipsqueak—her Nordic tongue doesn't spit so much as gleek, leaving Body Talk Pt. 2, the second of her three planned mini-albums, damp. On "Include Me Out," she calls for a "beep-beep for all of my whatchamacallits doing whatever and with whoever they like" with the finesse of Barbara Walters. On "Criminal Intent," she sounds like a less dexterous Peaches (and let's be real: An extremely dexterous Peaches is nothing to aspire to). And on "U Should Know Better," she goes toe-to-toe with Snoop Dogg, boasting about taking on the French, the Vatican, the Russians, the C.I.A., the Devil, and the music industry (a telling order!), concluding, "You should know better than to fuck with me." Glance at a picture of this five-foot-three, blue-eyed, blonde-haired thumbnail sketch of Scandinavia, and ask yourself: Are you scared yet?

If it isn't intimidating, Robyn's urban appropriation at least works as a reminder of her roots. See, more than even your average storied pop star, context has always been key to her appeal. How novel it was for a Swedish singer to convincingly do post–New Jack Swing r&b in the late '90s, when "Do You Know (What It Takes)" and "Show Me Love" became the biggest U.S. hits of her career! And for a TRL-era froth-whipper to be taken seriously by music snobs starting in the mid '00s, simply by making a slight shift to dance music! (Given the electronic nature of her 1995 synthesized-r&b debut, Robyn Is Here, switching to electro-pop wasn't as drastic a move as her loudest fans contend.) As she transitioned from Max Martin–molded tart to a dish of her own design (in her homeland, she now owns her own label, Konichiwa), dropping the melismatic runs and inspiring a rabid underdog following, her story became about the power in finding one's voice—the ideal pop singer's cliché.

And what a voice it is, dominating Body Talk Pt. 2 to a severe degree. Her alto, which sometimes mimics but never goes as far out as Kate Bush or Cyndi Lauper's, is like a fluorescent light on her music, washing out everything in its wake. If you love her voice, great; if you don't, it will cloy you to death. Robyn's interpretive skills are minimal at best: She opens her mouth and smiley faces come out. Her perpetual upward lilt and limited range give her delivery a detrimental sameness: She sounds emotionally static whether warning you not to fuck with her, describing herself as a programmed rebel in a cruel world, or lamenting, "Stockholm syndrome and misery/Is your penalty for love crimes." She's even chipper enough to make adopting a fuck-buddy sound like a triumph of the human spirit in "Hang With Me." (At least here, the song is bubbling with a suitable synthesized playfulness—the piano-and-strings version of "Hang" that appeared on Body Talk Pt. 1 was pointedly grave enough to come off as camp.)

Elsewhere, Robyn's right hand, producer and Teddybears founder Klas Åhlund, outfits her in enough arpeggiated synths to suggest an Italo-fetishism rivaled only by Jersey Shore. But these songs are largely missing the all-important knock: They sound kissed with percussion at best. Though still aimed at the discothèque, Body Talk Pt. 2 continues her trajectory to vocal-focused music, slightly more progressed on that path than Pt. 1 and much farther along than her relatively booming 2005 self-titled release. It's as if her sound is withering into treble before our ears. Opener "In My Eyes" is a mass of vibrating mush, the broken booty bass of "Criminal Intent" would get her ass laughed out right out of Miami, and "U Should Know Better" mimics the rhythm track of the Cure's "Close to Me," pitter-pattering just as slightly. "Hang With Me" is the highlight, actually, an update of Limahl's "The Never Ending Story," complete with manipulative whooshing. In the video, we get a visual representation of its kick (a disembodied bass drum pounding like a fancy metronome), but seeing is not believing. The four-on-the-floor lacks oomph. It sounds hollow. It plops. When she talks about finding rhythmic inspiration in things like continents shifting, unrecognized genius, and bad kissers clicking teeth in the minimal, "Pump Up the Volume"–esque "We Dance to the Beat," it's clear that she'll dance to anything. Or at least she believes her listeners will.

In classic diva form, Robyn is bigger than her songs. Egocentrism is part of your balanced superstar, but her champions seem to suggest she's somehow at an elevated status. That's bull. Her lyrics are as insipid as anyone's ("Just say one true thing like you mean it, and/Baby, just look into my eyes"), her videos just as narcissistic (the angles in the recent "Dancing on My Own" and "Hang With Me" clips insist that images of her merely existing are inherently interesting), her investment in her own brand just as pronounced. In the aforementioned "Criminal Intent," it turns out that her excuse for her public nastiness is "They played my song." (As if Pt. 1's beloved "Dancing on My Own," in which she knows it's stupid to show up at a club to spy on her ex with his new friend but does it anyway, weren't masturbatory enough!) She references herself at will (there's a sample of 2005 semi-hit "Konichiwa Bitches" on "Look Into My Eyes," and a probable "Show Me Love" mention on "Include Me Out") and explains in the Body Talk project's press release that she's doing three mini-albums because "I have all these great songs." In fact, Robyn's casual arrogance and regular boasting go beyond what you might expect from a run-of-the-mill pop star's, falling more in line with the antics of . . . well, a rapper, actually. Suddenly, it all makes sense.

 
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