Happy 35th Anniversary to Teena Marie’s fifth studio album Robbery, originally released September 18, 1983.
A chance encounter with Hal Davis, a prominent Motown Records staffer/producer, in 1976 put Teena Marie (born Mary Christine Brockert) onto a path that would change the course of her life—and the state of race relations in popular music—forever. This isn’t a dramatic overstatement; in 1979, Marie’s debut Wild and Peaceful was released, making her the first white artist to be sanctioned by the all-black record label.
With Marie’s rearing in the “Venice Harlem” neighborhood of Los Angeles, she had a unique understanding of the black social structure. This bond was key to the maintenance of that audience over the course of her career. But first, Marie had to survive the writing and recording of her first album.
Even with her obvious skills as a vocalist, songwriter and musician in her own right—and Marie’s interpersonal link to people of color—the label was cautious about piercing a black market with a white artist. To assuage their fears of the risks she posed, Marie was paired with their own resident maverick, the late Rick James. James produced the entire LP and duetted with Marie on its first single, the U.S. R&B Top 10 charter “I’m Just a Sucker for Your Love.” Further, in a move showing cognizance toward their core base—despite two decades of noteworthy crossover successes—the label did not place an image of Marie on the jacket cover. Instead they used a boilerplate landscape painting.
Wild and Peaceful made much headway with R&B fans, so Motown greenlit its follow-up, the even more ambitious Lady T (1980). The set featured deeper creative input from Marie despite its production being handled by Richard Rudolph. The effort also included a gorgeous photograph of the singer-songwriter. Not surprisingly, black listeners were nonplussed about Marie being white as they were sonically smitten with her. This gave the singer-songwriter confidence for her next career move with Irons in the Fire (1980). Unlike its predecessors, Irons in the Fire was written, arranged, produced and composed entirely by Teena Marie. Genres aside, this was a singular feat for women in the popular music field at that time. The trend continued with It Must Be Magic (1981), an equally passionate and erudite songbook that spun off hits and garnered rave reviews.
It was unfortunate then that despite Marie’s continual creative ascent, her relationship with Motown had deteriorated. Managing to extricate herself from that plight, she signed with Epic Records in 1982. During this epoch, black music had long since come off its extended high courtesy of the disco boom of the mid-to-late 1970s; this period was also marked by an embrace of new technological advances in the record making process. And these were just the external elements to be accounted for when Marie began to script her fifth album Robbery, her first for the Epic imprint.
On the personal side, Marie’s longtime courtship with Rick James that powered some of the more intense sides of her past long players had reached an impasse. James’ struggles with remaining monogamous—and the consequences of his other vices—had taken a toll on Marie. She used all of it as an accelerant for her songwriting and the album became a stage for the breakdown of her relationship with James. There were nine tracks in all; each song held its own narrative, and yet they all formed an engrossing, interconnected song cycle.
Pieces like “Playboy” and “Cassanova Brown” veered wildly from one extreme of Marie’s affection for James to her distress from him. The former cut sang praises to his lothario ways. The latter entry charted the lows of Marie’s love for the King of Punk Funk by cleverly making a range of analogies and references, from Howard Hughes to her own song “Tune in Tomorrow,” an older paean to her and James from Irons in the Fire. These, and all the other titles on Robbery, were intelligently and affectingly crafted. Marie matched the elevation of her lyricism here with its partnering sonic architecture.
Marie tapped into much of the same black dance music (“Fix It”) and operatic jazz (“Shadow Boxing”) for Robbery that defined her preceding endeavors, except this time she trimmed a considerable portion of it with electronic accents for added dimension. The apex of this intersection of live instrumentation and digital production comes to a delicious head on “Midnight Magnet.” The track’s organic percussion and synthesizer bass marry well and cooperate with the song’s lyrics, bringing the tension of the writing into aural flesh for the listener to reach out and touch—none of this accidental, Marie’s intent is clear. All the tunes present on Robbery are armed with this punch, pow and pizazz that is both contemporary (for the era) and timeless.
Released on September 18, 1983, Robbery was an instant fan favorite. However, it brought about a brief commercial decline from It Must Be Magic even with the undisputed caliber of its content. Its four singles—“Robbery,” “Fix It,” “Midnight Magnet” and “Dear Lover”—did find modest-to-solid footing on the American R&B charts and maintained airplay clout on those corresponding radio formats. The sales stumble of Robbery was mostly erased in the wake of Starchild (1984), an album buoyed by the success of Marie’s lone crossover pop hit “Lovergirl.”
Marie recorded three more collections for Epic Records from 1986 to 1990. Later, across several other labels, five more albums emerged from 1994 to 2013. Her final affair, Beautiful, was posthumously unveiled just three years after her tragic passing in 2010. Each of these albums deepened the legend of Teena Marie within the annals of black music history. Out of Marie’s canon, Robbery is an uncontested triumph. Lean and lush, the long player was an apex for the Queen of Ivory Soul capturing all her might and magic in one place, and remains her most fascinating batch of tunes.