The Strange Career of Robin Thicke

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008 | SMASH Pop Culture with

It was about five years ago that I first discovered Robin Thicke. I didn’t quite know what to make of him then –and perhaps even now. Featured as a VH-1 artist “You Oughta Know”, he appeared in a heavily-hyped video for a song called “When I Get You Alone”, which itself was pretty bold. An ambitious take on Walter Murphy’s disco anthem “A Fifth of Beethoven”, “When I Get You Alone” showed a long-haired Thicke rolling up and down Manhattan streets on a bicycle working as a courier. The long hair was memorable, especially since now he prefers a much shorter, controlled ‘do, but the song also seemed to defy any classification. Perhaps because of this, Thicke’s first single and album, “Cherry Blue Skies” were not successes when released in 2002, despite the marketing efforts of hip-hop producer and President of Uptown Records,  Andre Harrell, who became the guru and mastermind behind Thicke’s career.

Who was this guy anyways, and why did it seem hard to label him, as radio and music programmers are wont to do in this competitive business? 31-year-old Robin Thicke is the son of TV’s Alan Thicke and Gloria Loring. Dad Alan was the father on “Growing Pains” in the 80s; Mom was a soap star on “Days of Our Lives” for many years. The Thicke family was also a musical family, as Alan Thicke also wrote TV theme songs, including “The Facts of Life”. Young Robin grew up wealthy in Beverly Hills and, as the legend goes, was part of a rhythm-and-blues musical group when he was in his teens, and pretty much was exposed to this style of music since he was young.

So what’s the big fuss? Rich kid, son of TV parents, becomes a composer and producer of other pop and hip-hop artists such as Christina Aguilera, Jordan Knight and Usher. He cites Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder as his musical influences. You’d think he has the ability to bankroll a career himself, given his family background. But Robin Thicke apparently decided to invent and re-invent himself after that 2002 debut in which few people even discovered him. The difficulty was that his debut was rather formless, a mishmash of different styles without much cohesion. What kind of music was this? Soul? Hip hop? Rock? In the American tendency to always place its music into neat little boxes, Robin Thicke seemed to be a difficult or uneasy fit. Thicke himself (by the way, he had dropped his first name originally, and was known only as “Thicke”) would probably agree that it’s always been a struggle to market him to the masses.

See, Robin Thicke is white. After the minimal success of his first album, and a guest shot on the Will Smith movie soundtrack to “Switch”, Thicke returned in October 2006 with the album, “The Evolution of Robin Thicke”. Again, nothing much happened, or so it seemed with the release of his single, “Got 2 Be Down”. Despite guest turns by Faith Evans and Lil Wayne, it appeared that this second launch of Robin Thicke, again marketed aggressively by Harrell, would go nowhere. Then, in the early part of 2007, a second single, “Lost Without U”, sent Thicke into the stratosphere and defined him outright as a singer. The song was an instant smash and it earned him appearances on talk shows such as “Good Morning America” and “American Idol”. The soft, romantic lyrics and falsetto became a trademark of sorts, and the song enjoyed a very long stay on the pop and r&b charts. While it reached the Top 20 on Billboard’s pop charts, it went all the way to #1 on the r&b charts, becoming the first Caucasian singer since George Michael and Lisa Stansfield to accomplish this feat.

Thicke was beginning to get noticed in a big way. Selling more than 1.5 million copies of “Evolution” and earning a choice opening slot in Beyonce’s world tour, Thicke finally became a star. Even Oprah got into the act –albeit late—when she invited Thicke on her show in late May 2007, gushing about Thicke’s music with pal/hanger-on Gayle King in front of her mass audience on national TV. The trick for Thicke was to now deliver a worthy follow-up to “Evolution” while also “evolving” himself: how do you take a sound that people recognize as “soulful”, “sweet”, “baby-making”, and still try to reinvent yourself in a way that gets you recognized? While he had achieved commercial success, Thicke still wasn’t quit accepted by critics. “Lost Without U” was not nominated for a Grammy Award, which was a surprise. However, he did win for best r&b album at the Soul Train awards. Go figure. It’s possible that then, and even now, it’s still been hard to put him in that neat little box.

Thicke’s next single had a rather unusual “release” of sorts –in Vietnam, of all places, this past July. It’s hard to tell why this was the case, but I wonder if Andre Harrell’s people got in touch with the Donald Trump people, who produce the Miss Universe pageant. A song called “Magic” appeared prominently during the pageant’s evening wear competition. The song was instantly catchy, a soulful confection with horns and real instruments, and it was unmistakably Thicke with the falsetto. The song also got more attention than it probably expected: it was the song featured as Miss USA, for the second consecutive year, fell down as she walked out on stage. Not just a You Tube instant hit with millions of hits, but Thicke’s song served as an ironic theme to such a nasty fall.

Thicke’s new CD, “Something Else”, out at the end of September, features “Magic” and 11 other tracks. It’s a mostly decent collection of songs, well-produced and recorded live in a studio with session musicians. The album has sold well; last week it debuted at #3 on the Billboard Hot 200 album chart, selling approximately 134,000 copies, behind Jennifer Hudson’s debut and T.I. And yet once again, there is the lingering doubt about what Robin Thicke is, and where he should be played on American radio. At a time when hip hop and rap still reign (see releases by T.I, the virtual reign of Kanye West and the near saturation/overload of appearances by the rotten, sex-obsessed Akon), and where r&b is still mostly a Black affair, Thicke once again forces programmers and critics to pigeonhole and scratch their heads. That he is a decent singer is clear. His production and composing efforts, while not reaching the creativity of a Gnarls Barkley or Timbaland, still merit some attention for their understatedness. You don’t necessarily put on a Robin Thicke record and expect a rousing jam.

“You’re my Baby”, the opening track, is traditional Thicke, soft and melodic, with the requisite falsettos that would serve as a good transition to anyone who is experiencing Thicke’s sound for the first time. While it’s a solid track, it doesn’t necessarily break new ground. The second track, “Sidestep”, affirms something much more upbeat, a song that coasts along a pulsating bass line. It’s one of the best tracks on the album. “Magic” is the next track, and while it sounds familiar, the most defining element are the rush of horns at the start and end –they linger on a bit much at the end but nothing compares to the catchy chorus (“I’ve got it”/”You’ve got it”) that is echoed throughout. But it’s “Dreamworld” that is the triumphant centerpiece. It’s at once even-handed and contemplative, a plea to a gentler world of love and racial understanding. Thicke’s vocalizing is restrained and evocative:

I would tell Van Gogh that he was loved, there’s no need to cry
I would say Marvin Gaye your father didn’t want you to die (dream)
There would be no black and white, the world just treat my wife right
We could down in Mississipi and no one would look at us twice

That’s my dreamworld, that’s my dreamworld, it’s more than a dream
That’s my dreamworld, that’s my dreamworld, and I wanna live in my dream (dream)

The issues of being white in a Black-dominated music industry –in the hip hop world—clearly affect Thicke, and he is keenly aware that he is constantly compared to soul singers of an earlier era. On “Something Else” you can hear influences of Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, Lenny Kravitz, and even a singer who himself is emerging after a 7-year absence, Maxwell. But Thicke is also married to a gorgeous Black woman, Paula Patton, a model and actress in her own right. (She appears in the video for “Lost Without U”). These days, Thicke tends to balk at comparisons to singers as diverse as Justin Timberlake, Usher, or even Ne-Yo, which is an unfortunate tendency that music writers have in defining singers because it’s hard to be unique or “apart” from the others. What is noteworthy is the implication that because Thicke is not Black, he cannot fully merit the acclaim as a “soul” singer. (It’s the same plight that afflicts Timberlake; despite Grammy wins and a well-received epic “concept” album, “FutureSexLoveSound” in 2006, he is still regarded as just a pop singer.)

Thicke still
a bit
of seasoning before
he delivers
his own opus
for a newcomer
Thicke still needs a bit of seasoning before he delivers his own opus for a newcomer, much like Maxwell’s “Urban Hang Suite” in 1996 or the recent CD by Ne-Yo. The album’s title track would be fine were it not a KC and the Sunshine Band re-tread. It’s just OK, and it pulsates fairly well. Bu why does it have to sound like a roller disco jam that Jamiroquai put together? He is also unsteady on a song like “Shadow of Doubt” –a listless entry that meanders around uninteresting lyrics. “Cry No More” is no better, really, since it feels like album filler, with a plodding feel all around. The final track, a preachy “Tie My Hands”, features Lil Wayne (again) and the heavy-handedness is not the best way to end what is still a mostly decent soul record. While “Something Else” is not the barnstormer of the year, it also isn’t the best showcase yet for a talent that is still in the process of forming itself. Let’s call it a better-than-competent sophomore effort, and we can expect that the hand-wringing over whether he is “Black” enough (or white enough) will continue as well.

Check out Thicke’s myspace page here.

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1 Comment »

Comment by anonymous
2008-10-14 10:14:56

Robin Thicke’s albums are pure brilliance. Different tastes for different folks I guess. I have never been impressed by Ne-Yo or Maxwell. It was always D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu. Outside of being my personal favorite, Robin hasn’t earned his place there yet. Maxwell was place high up because he was one of the firsts not one of the best. Of course he has a great voice, but when it comes to material, he is a subpar writer like the thief that is Beyonce Knowles Carter. Long way around to get to my point, I don’t think your article has much substance. Robin moved out when he was 17, and has been supporting himself completely since then. He chose to do this on his own without the help of mommy and daddy. I respect that. Only ignorant, hypocrites do not.

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