Notorious represents a triumph over adversity not because it's a great album — Duran Duran's fourth effort is a sleeper in the hits department compared to Rio or Seven and the Ragged Tiger — but because it exists at all. Its back story is so giddy with '80s problems it would take Kurt Loder a Very Special MTV News Break to hash it all out. Maybe the trouble began with singer Simon Le Bon's 1985 yacht accident, but who can say? Hamstrung by the departure of two-thirds of the band's Taylors (drummer Roger retired to the English countryside after exhausting himself touring and posing for teen magazines; guitarist Andy left for a solo career after a stint in Power Station with Robert Palmer), Duran Duran sought to reinvent itself in 1986 as a more serious, rhythmic trio with large amounts of assistance from producer Nile Rodgers.
If anyone could lend a little funk to Le Bon, keyboardist Nick Rhodes and bassist John Taylor, then Rodgers — who produced David Bowie's Let's Dance — was just the guy to do it. In that sense, Notorious finds Duran Duran reaching beyond its dance-pop comfort zone, a change particularly evident when Lenny Pickett's Borneo Horns blare over songs ("Meet El Presidente," "American Science") where flashy guitar hooks used to be. But in other ways Notorious is shockingly honest, at least for Le Bon, who sings about cruel treatment at the hands of the "serious" press on the title track and laments selling out on "Skin Trade." It's just a pity that self-reflection on fame and fortune goes over so poorly with the masses. "A Matter of Feeling," meanwhile, rivals "Save a Prayer" as the group's best ballad even if its six minutes float by in surreal, slightly subdued washes of synth melody. But Notorious will be best remembered for its title track; not only because it was sampled by Biggie or soundtracked Donnie Darko's Sparkle Motion dance team; but also for its incredible feat of stretching four syllables and a remedial funk-guitar line into a pop music form of public defense.