In Defense of Adam Lambert's 'Trespassing': Why His Last Album Should Be Rediscovered

Adam Lambert, 2014.
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for AT&T Live Proud

Adam Lambert performs at AT&T Live Proud at Highline Ballroom on October 13, 2014 in New York City. 

Ostensibly, Adam Lambert's sophomore album, Trespassing, was not a success. Upon its May 2012 release, the album did become Lambert's first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart, selling 77,000 copies and making the former American Idol runner-up the first openly gay male artist to ever top the albums tally; perhaps for that alone, Trespassing was a win for Lambert. Yet the album debuted with less than half of the albums sold in the first week of its predecessor, 2009's For Your Entertainment, which peaked at No. 3 with 198,000 sold.

That debut album spawned a Top 10 hit on the Hot 100, "Whataya Want From Me," a pristine pop-rock anthem co-written by Pink and a Grammy nominee for best male pop vocal performance. Trespassing produced one Hot 100 hit, the solid-if-not-spectacular "Better Than I Know Myself," which peaked at No. 76; no other songs from the album, including the uptempo follow-up single "Never Close Our Eyes," cracked the chart. A little over a year after Trespassing's release, Lambert officially left his label home, RCA Records, in July 2013, after claiming that "the label is 'pushing for an ['80s] covers album' and feels that this is the only kind of release they are prepared to support." One imagines that, had Trespassing produced a few more (or even one more) top 10 hits on par with "Whataya Want From Me," Lambert would not be asked to make his next studio project an '80s covers LP.

On Thursday, Lambert celebrated his birthday by giving his fans a present: the title of his next album and release month of its first single. The Original High, which was executive produced by Max Martin and Shellback, and its first track will be out in April. With a new label home, Warner Bros. Records, and two of pop's most in-demand producers behind him, Lambert will try to convert a fresh start into a commercial coup. But before that happens, we would be remiss (and the "we" I'm using here refers to society at large) not to point out how utterly original Trespassing is, and why, despite its lack of hits, Lambert's second album compels its listeners to invest in the 33-year-old's musical future.

The album's only Hot 100 hit, "Better Than I Know Myself," actually serves as a red herring for the rest of the album -- working with Dr. Luke, Cirkut and Ammo on the track, Lambert essentially remade "Whataya Want From Me" without a signature vocal hook and with more melodramatic production flourishes. If one were to base his or her entire opinion of Trespassing on the album's first single and its cold, indignant music video, then the entire point of the full-length would be missed. Outside of "Better Than I Know Myself," Trespassing represents a swinging night out with a spectacularly charismatic voice. The majority of the album is pure kinetic energy, with Lambert delivering its choruses rapidly and squeezing over-the-top sexuality into every tawdry syllable.

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While For Your Entertainment channeled that motion into preening glam rock, Trespassing commits to the lane of funk music, playing loose with its guitar licks and letting Lambert glide steadily over extended bass riffs (a pre-"Get Lucky" Nile Rodgers even appears on "Shady" to help steer the song's disco ooze). Songs like "Cuckoo," "Naked Love" and the Trespassing title track transport Lambert to musical territory occupied by glittery dance artists like Sylvester and Kool & The Gang, but these songs are fiercer, more demanding of attention and wholly uncompromising in their stylistic decisions. Lambert moves about these songs freely and ecstatically, as if swaggering funk-pop had long been flowing through his veins and Trespassing was his first opportunity to fully express that identity.

The word "trespassing" denotes the entrance of an off-limits area, and throughout Trespassing, Lambert invites the listener to follow his devilish grin into a candy-colored club scene where "the freaks like us can meet," as he puts it on "Shady." Obviously Lambert's sexuality has him casting himself as an outsider at times (or as a guide to hidden desire, on songs like "Pop That Lock" and "Naked Love"), but more often, he casts himself as gleefully trespassing in the world of popular music. "No trespassers? Yeah, my ass!/ Wait till ya get a load of me!" he sneers on the title track, an elastic synth-pop pageant that sounds like a smash hit from another planet, or from an alternate history of this one. Elsewhere, the industrial-pop opus "Broken English" sounds like the opening song of a Nine Inch Nails Broadway musical, the enjoyable "Chokehold" temporarily returns Lambert to the guitar-driven excess of For Your Entertainment, and while "Never Close Our Eyes" doesn't work as a standalone single, the song offers a propulsive pick-me-up from the elegant slink of "Shady." Perhaps Lambert knew that Trespassing was a thrilling experience devoid of radio hits; if he did, he certainly doesn't sound like he cares much about its lack of commercial viability. 

But, really, Trespassing DID have a radio hit, produced and co-written by Pharrell Williams one year before "Get Lucky" and "Blurred Lines" brought the N.E.R.D. whiz back to the pop-culture forefront. "Kickin' In" is a crazy under-appreciated club banger, complete with cowbell, a crackling vocal take from Lambert and Pharrell onboard as a willing sidekick in a liquored-up adventure. "Kickin' In" zooms, stacking its synthesizers in the chorus but leaving gaps of air for a winding intro and a bass lick before the third refrain. Maybe the BPM was simply too high for "Kickin' In" to land as a single, but in hindsight, the Great Pharrell Comeback of 2012 certainly could have started one year earlier.

The aftermath of Trespassing's release was confounding to those who had discovered and championed the album upon its release. How could a pop album this agreeable be followed by a messy label split and (an admittedly genius) gig singing for a classic rock band? This week's news that Lambert will be back with a new album in the near future has fans understandably excited, and the involvement of Martin and Shellback is an encouraging sign as well. And while Lambert has to re-prove himself as a reliable hit-maker with The Original High, Trespassing strengthened a unique voice within the genre, and demonstrated that Lambert doesn't need to release a covers album to make a great 80's pop record. Where does he go from here? We'll find out in a few months, but until then, take some time to rediscover an underrated pop gem.