Editor’s Note: The Albumism staff has selected what we believe to be the 100 Most Dynamic Debut Albums Ever Made, representing a varied cross-section of genres, styles and time periods. Click “Next Album” below to explore each album or view the full album index here.
Smokey Robinson’s luminous solo career is as notable for its subtlety as it is for the beautiful music he has created for himself and others. When he and the Miracles went their separate ways in 1972, Robinson quietly passed the baton to Baltimore native Billy Griffin and became one of the newly configured quartet’s biggest ambassadors. There was no Vegas showroom, no high drama—just a low-key new beginning that began in earnest the following year with Smokey, the singer-songwriter’s achingly beautiful solo debut.
Robinson produced the Tamla LP with the gifted Willie Hutch, and the result was an emotional trove of love songs and social commentary tracks reflective of those combustible, transitional times. Interestingly, only Hutch is featured on the original LP’s gatefold jacket—a clear, smoke-filled glass sphere acts as proxy for Robinson on the front cover (A full-body shot of the singer is shown in the jacket’s center spread, however.).The presentation speaks to the record’s somewhat unsung standing in the big-picture view of Robinson’s career, and the space Motown inhabited in early-‘70s, album-oriented R&B.
No subject was off limits, with Robinson wading into the waters of forbidden relationships, lost youth, and the specter of Vietnam. While luxuriating in the spacious arrangements, it’s easy to completely miss the ominous undertones of “Holly” (a cry for an ill-fated runaway), “A Silent Partner in a Three-Way Love Affair” (which finds Robinson in love with his best friend’s woman), and “Just My Soul Responding” (the story of a veteran struggling to find his footing upon coming home).
This is the hallmark of Robinson’s genius; he has always been able to write of darkness and light with an intellect and sensitivity that does not preach or pander. His rendition of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and the medley of “Never My Love/Never Can Say Goodbye” are equally stunning, while the hits “Sweet Harmony” (a tender dedication to his former group mates) and “Baby Come Close” have only gotten better with time.
Smokey stands as a tasteful step forward for someone who, by that time, was already a living legend.