Pop

Two Decades After Robyn's Debut Album 'Robyn Is Here,' Does It Foreshadow a Pop Genius?

Robyn performs on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Aug. 13, 1997.
Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Robyn performs on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Aug. 13, 1997.

In 1997, Robyn Is Here was a blip, sneaking into the Billboard Top 200 Albums at No. 57 and going Platinum over the course of the next year. You heard “Show Me Love” and “Do You Know (What It Takes)” on the radio, or maybe you didn’t. It was a hit, not a smash, though one could also ask what didn’t go Platinum in 1997. Robyn was just 18, mononymous, and easily confused with Robin S., another dance-pop vocalist with the unfortunate, improbable coincidence of having her own hit entitled “Show Me Love” a few years prior.

Essentially, the teenaged Robyn was a pop hopeful, and Robyn Is Here -- released in the U.S. 20 years ago this Wednesday (June 21) -- was a launching pad, one not necessarily meant to be all that good, and at this point it seems entirely plausible that more Robyn fans have not heard the album than ones who have. Who could have predicted this album, which had been kicking around the Swedish charts since 1995 and didn’t hit the U.S. for two years, would be well into the rear-view mirror of two certified pop geniuses as the 2010s unfolded?

That other mastermind is Max Martin, who produced "Do You Know" and "Show Me Love" -- both Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hits -- and would also score big with Backstreet Boys’ “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart),” a No. 2-peaking smash, in the summer of 1997.  Soon after, Martin’s career really began, helping pen one earthquake after another: “…Baby One More Time,” “I Want It That Way,” “Since U Been Gone,” “Can’t Feel My Face.” His early work with Robyn was good, sold millions, and yet the fact there’s a chance you may have actually escaped it relegates it to Martin’s Small Potatoes column.

But the other genius involved in these tunes, Robyn herself, is kind of much happier to be a small potato. Her winsome, Pitchfork-approved 2005 comeback album Robyn -- which, like her debut, took another two years before U.S. release -- even managed to turn the boastful pop-rap of “Konichiwa Bitches” (which predates Fergie, Uffie, and Kesha) into the teeny-weeniest of threats: “I’ll hammer your toe like a pediatrician,” “Count you out like a mathematician” (no Robyn, please, anything but that).

Even her truly world-beating stuff concerns the relatively (for a Max Martin protégé anyway) muted emotions of “Dancing on My Own,” the tender side of relationship closure (“Call Your Girlfriend”), and the “automatic booty applications” of being a “Fembot,” rather than some kind of sad-android dystopia or internal sexism meditation. These tunes are huge, emotional triumphs, but Robyn’s personality comes through the strength of the songs themselves, rather than something iconic she did onstage or an endlessly RT'd quote she told a publication. You could say she put a human face on “faceless” pop, which is what Robyn Is Here maybe was considered at the time. Yet 20 years later, it plays better than any All Saints or Eiffel 65 album.

The choppy keyboard line and snare thwacks of “Do You Know (What It Takes)” are an obvious dry run for the style Martin would take skyward on “…Baby One More Time,” but it’s a shock today to hear just how R&B Robyn once was.  Robyn Is Here plays like a TLC album infused with proto-prime Swedish pop: The opening “Bumpy Ride” is especially funky, fit for Salt-n-Pepa’s Very Necessary, with G-funk keyboards and a low-riding breakbeat and turntable scratches embellishing Robyn’s coolly chanted come-ons. The sunnier “You’ve Got That Somethin’” would sound great following Brandy’s “Sittin’ Up in My Room.” There are also surprising touches, like the (sampled?) Mellotron that cues up the awesome Swedish Top Ten hit “Do You Really Want Me (Show Respect),” like it’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” or something.

And the penultimate track “Robyn Is Here” is a genuine shock; this just isn’t supposed to be the kind of album that has a self-aware title track. Perhaps the best tune on the whole record, “Robyn Is Here” is just a gorgeous, Mary J. Blige-esque paean to the singer herself, how she’ll make you feel alright, make her audience feel special, and “get you in that freaky mood.” It’s adorable, multi-tracked to perfection, and absolutely 100% contains the line “The sun is shining / It makes everybody horny.” (You betcha “horny” is pronounced “hor-nay.”)

The glistening “Show Me Love” itself sounds like less chart filler than ever, peacefully pulling together sonics and vocal signatures from all manner of ‘90s radio blessings: Mariah’s cheesy largesse, wah guitars straight out of TLC’s “Waterfalls.” The seismic chorus could’ve ended up in a Backstreet arena-ballad, or U2’s “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of.” The four chords of the verse each push a boulder uphill. And in its original album context, it’s followed by “Just Another Girlfriend,” a hypnotically low-key soul burner comprised of a whole different set of typical 1997 textures, like triangles and vibraphone and a grimy old breakbeat.

Robyn Is Here was a generic album in the best sense, proof that this budding newcomer could tackle a bunch of different things without making a big show of it, despite the obviously formidable acrobatics in her voice and the less obviously steeled songcraft, which is as listenable and lightly touched as anything Blige or Brandy themselves has ever done. It doesn’t feel like a great album -- that smallness to it really is a double-edged sword -- but there isn’t a speck of filler on it either, the closest trait it shares with her 2010 magnum opus Body Talk. That’s something any 18-year-old artist should be proud of. Or any 38-year-old.