In 2008, Michelle Williams made a bold change in direction with her third solo album. On the aptly titled Unexpected, Williams opted to release a dance pop album after releasing two successful gospel albums (Heart To Yours and Do You Know). It was a daring move that yielded an innovative and infectious pop album.
Since Michelle rose to frame as a member of the pop/R&B superstar trio Destiny’s Child, she was no stranger to making music with pop sensibilities. However, as a solo star she had been rebranded as a gospel artist. Michelle was never one to be placed in a box, though. She has always talked about loving all types of music, and for her third album, she looked to challenge her own perception.
I had the chance to chat with Michelle in light of the tenth anniversary of Unexpected, and, with my first question I asked her to take me back ten years. I asked her to take me through the inception of her third album Unexpected, which actually started as a soulful R&B album. So, she took me back to the beginning:
“The fans had been saying they wanted to hear me try some soul music,” she recalled, “They said, ‘we would love to hear you on some soulful music, especially after Destiny Fulfilled’. Going in that direction, I worked with some of the writers from Destiny Fulfilled. I was doing my good sangin’.”
Then, the story goes, Michelle played what she had been working on for her mother. Her mother’s reaction was not what she had expected. Michelle remembered that her mother “wanted the world to see [her] in a different way: happy, upbeat, and dancing.”
“Then I started working with Rico Love. First on, “‘Til the End of the World,” which actually would’ve fit good on an R&B album. We keep cranking out songs, that’s just how it happened. Once you vibe with a writer or producer, just go along with them. You don’t mess up the flow of the album. It starts to tell a story, it becomes cohesive.”
As Michelle described her creative process during Unexpected, it reminded me of hearing her talk about her most recent album, Journey to Freedom, the bulk of which was produced by Harmony Samuels. “Exactly,” she said, “they knew what I needed and what I wanted. I didn’t need to keep repeating stories, they knew what I wanted to say as an artist.”
So how did it all begin with Rico Love? Before writing and producing the bulk of Unexpected, Love had worked with Usher on “Throwback,” off his hit album Confessions, Keri Hilson’s breakout single “Energy,” and Natasha Bedingfield’s hit “Love Like This.” However, it was after his work with Michelle that he became a highly sought after songwriter, going on to work with the rest of Destiny’s Child. Eventually, he wrote and produced hits for both Kelly (“Motivation”) and Beyoncé (“Sweet Dreams”). Michelle had him first, though.
“It all started with ‘Til the End of the World,’ my A&R Max Gousse played his music for me and I fell in love with it. Rico did the original demo. We scheduled the sessions, and it all went from there.”
When I asked her if there were any specific artists that inspired her while making the album, she was quick to answer: “No, I just went in without any set inspirations. The album evolved into its dance sound, it organically evolved. Of course, I could say Donna Summer, but I didn’t go into like, ‘I want to be the 2000s Donna Summer'”.
Rico Love wasn’t Williams’ only collaborator on Unexpected, though. The album’s lead single, “We Break the Dawn,” was written by Solange Knowles. Michelle has fond memories of working with Solange, saying, “I first heard it as a demo by Solange and I loved, loved, loved her writing style. It’s different, you can tell. I love what she does.” The pair also collaborated on “The Movement,” from her sophomore album, 2004’s Do You Know.
In hindsight, though, Michelle says, “I loved ‘Hello Heartbreak,’ it should have been my lead single. I loved recording it because it was so different for me to do.” Indeed, “Hello Heartbreak” is one of the most innovative tracks on the album, that still sounds fresh today. The synth-laden, dance-pop groove is perfectly anthemic, catchy, and danceable. All the while, it showcases Michelle’s powerful pipes.
Another track that showcased Michelle’s vocals and her ability to execute a pop ballad is “The Greatest.” I asked her which of the songs from the album she still connects to today, she immediately cited the ballad. “I would say songs like ‘The Greatest’ can speak to so many people, because if you were looking for love or in an unfulfilling relationship, it’s because you were looking for it, and love comes when you least expect it.”
Other highlights from the album, according to Michelle, are “Lucky Girl,” as well as the aforementioned “Til the End of the World.” She says she would definitely include those tracks, and naturally “We Break the Dawn,” in any future concert setlist. “Most of the album, really. I sequenced it in a way that if I were to do it live, I would do it in order.” Of course, I couldn’t resist the urge to suggest/request an Unexpected anniversary show, to which she responded, “Maybe! You never know.” I won’t get my hopes up just yet, though.
Unexpected was such a fun era for her fans, but Michelle remembers it just as fondly: “It was just a really fun, free time. It was something that I wanted to do from my heart and we had a blast creating it. While promoting the album I was able to be in venues that I never got the chance to experience before, from performing at gay clubs, to music festivals. It was a really fun, fun time.”
Of course, I have my own fond memories of the era. In August 2008, Michelle performed at a festival on Long Island, New York, that was sponsored by dance music radio station Party 105. On the line up for that very same festival was a then unknown Lady Gaga. As it turns out, that wasn’t the only time Michelle and Gaga’s paths have crossed.
A Little Gaga
“I remember being in the same studio where Lady Gaga was recording (her debut album, The Fame) and I just remember her being so excited. She asked me, ‘Michelle! What is it like to hear your music on the radio?’ Whenever I see her now, she is just a jewel, she’s awesome. I’m so proud of her!”
Lady Gaga did not have to wait long to find out what it’s like to hear her music on the radio, as she soon went onto become a superstar. In fact, she found success with a dance pop sound very similar to Michelle’s on Unexpected. So, I asked Michelle how she feels about having been ahead of the curve, and her album being vastly underrated.
“I love all types of music, so it was awesome for me to say I’ve done gospel and also put a dance pop album out there. I keep it moving. There were things I could have done better as an artist, things I could have fought more for the label to push. But I can’t totally blame them.”
Looking forward, I wanted to know if she were to take another unexpected turn musically, in which direction would she go? After pondering for a moment, she responded saying, “I would like to do jazz album with a mix of some soul.”
I walked into a studio session I had today and I had no idea I’d walk in and see @KennyEdmonds (BABYFACE) there waiting! I screamed and I’m embarrassed!!! My mind says “Michelle, you’re supposed to used to this!” Sorry….he’s a legend and was humbled and SHOCKED! 🤣
— Michelle Williams (@RealMichelleW) October 6, 2018
And yes, I also asked Michelle about that Babyface studio session. She said that while it isn’t something “solo,” it’s definitely “something cool, just wait!” Perhaps we can expect Michelle featured on a Babyface-penned track soon! The question is, whose?
Though nothing is in the works as of yet, she sees herself continuing to make inspirational music, perhaps touching on introspective topics like she did with “Believe in Me,” and perhaps even addressing mental health, for which she’s been a fearless, vocal advocate.
Listen to Michelle Williams’ Unexpected on Apple Music below. It is also available for purchase on iTunes or Amazon. It is currently unavailable on Spotify (but Michelle says she will definitely look into that).