The Brilliance of Robyn, in Eight Easy Pieces
Robyn was born a star. This is barely exaggeration. As a child, she voiced the female lead in the Swedish-language version of All Dogs Go to Heaven. At 16, she signed her first recording contract, releasing her debut album Robyn Is Here in 1995 and topping the Swedish pop charts. Her American breakthrough came a little over a year later when a revamped Robyn Is Here scored two top-10 singles: "Do You Know (What it Takes)" and "Show Me Love," a pair of perfectly pleasant distractions produced with the Swedish teen-pop brain trust of Denniz Pop and Max Martin.
Then things got interesting. After an introspective second album that was denied an international release and a dissatisfying third album disowned by Robyn as a "big compromise" that involved packaging her as "the next Christina Aguilera," Robyn ditched her label and set about reestablishing herself as an art-popper with complete control of her music. (A key part of this control: The ability to choose her collaborators, with Robyn quickly ditching the sure-shot Max Martin for the idiosyncratic artistry of the Knife and the Teddybears' Klas Åhlund.) Here's a track-by-track map of the triumph that followed Robyn's declaration of independence, along with a couple of key moves from before the Big Leap.
"Do You Really Want Me (Show Respect)"
This 1995 single was Robyn's breakthrough hit in Sweden, showcasing a sporty tomboy with a big voice and a refreshing habit of keeping her clothes on. In the song's video, she wears a long-sleeved turtleneck and a vest at the same time. Lyrically, it's one of her many young odes to real love, revealing Robyn as an appropriately horny teen ready to get busy with a good guy who can spell R-E-S-P-E-C-T. But musically, it's nothing special—sunny melody, light new jack swing–iness, and the promise of better things to come.
"Giving You Back"
A track from the 1999 release My Truth and Robyn's first flashing of her legendary balls. Over a Toni Braxton–y piano ballad-with-a-beat, Robyn veers between sorrow and certainty while addressing her "secret" abortion with a directness unprecedented in pop: "I'm giving you back to where you came from... but I'm not forgetting who you are."
One of the great opening volleys of the reinvented Robyn, released on her self-created record label in 2005 and cocomposed with the aforementioned Åhlund, who provides invaluable help (lyrically, musically, spiritually) in the conception of the new, hypercharacterized Robyn. Ditching her soulful singing for a ridiculously becoming light-rap style, she sweetly hypes her own badassery before coming in our mouths and offing us Slim Shady–style, all in 160 seconds.
"With Every Heartbeat"
Cocreated with Swedish recording artist Kleerup (with lyrics all by Robyn), "With Every Heartbeat" is the synthy, string-laden electro-ballad that hit number one in the UK and posited Robyn as a genre-hopping art-popper of the first order. A masterfully constructed breakup song, "Heartbeat" finds Robyn walking away from an imperfect love, executing the break with a resolve that casts her as a Don Juanita until the song's finale, when she hands herself over to a carefully contained sorrow, invoking the song's title over and over, like a prayer. (Speaking of Madonna: Loving her has always meant suffering through soggy ballads. But loving Robyn means basking in gems like this.)
"Don't Fucking Tell Me What to Do"
Another deep collaboration with Åhlund, this one from the pristine Body Talk songbook unleashed on the world over the course of 2010. Over a terse electrobeat, Robyn spends three minutes listing the things in her life that are "killing" her: drinking, smoking, TV, work, heels, e-mail, her landlord, her ego. The response triggered in the listener's brain—"Then knock it off!"—is answered by the song's fourth minute, in which Robyn repeats the song title nine times. Genius.
"Dancing on My Own"
The hit you know and love, and rightly so. Cowritten with Patrik Berger, who helps summon a more humane Robyn than the superheroic Åhlund, "Dancing" casts Robyn as an inhibited, lovelorn loser watching a clueless beloved from afar, who's not going to let her crappy love life stop her from going dancing. She's sad, not dead.
"U Should Know Better" (featuring Snoop Dogg)
An underworshipped Body Talk gem that is, to my ears, the greatest pop/hiphop collaboration yet created. Åhlund tosses Snoop Dogg a beat that's twice as fast as he's used to, and Snoop still manages to surf by at his leisure, mouthing off about hot bitches, silly hos, and the LAPD. Meanwhile, Robyn goes after bigger game, promising to kick the ass of Russia, the Vatican, the FBI, and Satan himself without breaking a sweat. The pair practically chases each other through the song—trading refrains, sparking off one another's rhymes, sharing singing duties. It's amazing.
“Call Your Girlfriend”
The most recent Body Talk single finds Robyn and Åhlund navigating lyrical terrain typically associated with such heady songwriters as Smokey Robinson and Stephin Merritt. Detailing Robyn’s instructions to a new flame on how to humanely disentangle himself from his committed relationship, “Call Your Girlfriend” blends the eternally youthful pop spark of Little Eva with the ancient wisdom of Yoda, in a song that understands that bliss and sorrow are a hair’s breadth apart. It’s a dance song that can make you cry.