Talkhouse Contributing Writer Luke Temple is a songwriter and member of Here We Go Magic. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Robin Thicke and I are probably not too different in terms of the music we love — I’m a big lover of soul and r&b. But right now it seems like it’s all about the party and forgetting our problems, about living vicariously through our pop stars rather than them trying to relate to us through their gifts. Still, even though a lot of current r&b artists compromise the “soul” in favor of commerce, I’m always hoping and praying that one of these guys is gonna come out with something that knocks my sox off. I wanna hear something as current as it is timeless, and above all, soulful — like, tears of joy soulful.
I had actually never heard of Robin Thicke before seeing the video for “Blurred Lines” — the one with the naked girls. I was living alone in a shack in upstate New York when I saw it and it made me a little depressed on a couple levels. It’s a taunting video that only displays how some have and some have not, with no other meaning whatsoever. Anyway, as is the case with the zeitgeist, once I saw the video his name started popping up everywhere.
Despite the “Blurred Lines” video and its annoying qualities, I decided to give Thicke the benefit of the doubt and see if there was any substance buried in his new album. Here’s my blow-by-blow.
“Blurred Lines,” the Pharrell-produced single, is an uncomplicated, guys-having-a-good-time, goof-off kind of jam. The hook seems to be the “hey hey hey” — at least, that’s what stuck in my mind. Thicke seems to be going for a Marvin Gaye “Got to Give It Up” kind of thing. I could be wrong but the beat sounds like a loop, which makes it considerably more thin than the Marvin track but a nice enough tune nonetheless.
Timbaland produced “Take It Easy on Me,” and it’s a club banger. And we start to get a little more serious here: He talks about how she has a cherry pie under her dress. I guess it’s about a food hoarder. Now he has her and he’s begging her to take it easy on him because he’s woken up in a basement chained to the wall and she’s stuffing cherry pie down his throat. It’s a song that will get people crazy on the dance floor while reminding them not to go home with just anyone because they might get into an unfortunate dessert incident.
Thicke gets melodic on “Ooo La La.” Made with his long-time producer Pro-Jay, it’s a good ol’ Michael Jackson jam with a slight hint of Jobim in the progression. There’s a big difference between actual melody and X Factor melisma, and here he’s stretching the melodies in a nice, thoughtful way. The tune has a nice joyful/sexy quality, although Michael did that better than anyone.
And then on “Ain’t No Hat 4 That,” Thicke sounds a bit like R. Kelly, especially at the end with the call-and-responses on the title line. And once again, there’s a bit of Jobim again in the chords — clearly, Pro-Jay loves his major 7ths. I suppose it’s about a girl with a very big head who can’t find a hat that will fit.
“Get in My Way” is another ’90s-style, big-production soul jam — very consciously a throwback jam with the little trumpet stabs and all that. And with the wah-wah guitar, it’s pretty funky. This time, Thicke sounds like Charlie Wilson. He sings about making it no matter what and begging someone to get in his way in order to show them. This seems to be a go-to narrative within the “urban music” realm. My hunch is that it came from people who actually did start from the bottom, but now it’s become some sort of prerequisite. (But that isn’t as offensive to me as that Drake song “Started from the Bottom” — which might be, to me, the least appealing song ever written.)
That’s a cool sawtooth synth intro on “Give It to You.” Then Kendrick Lamar says, “I wanna sit you where my face at.” Ha! Sometimes his face isn’t at that place. Also, Robin talks about his big dick in this one. In the video for the title track there’s a sign that says “Robin Thicke has a big dick.” I guess this record is his big dick campaign.
The piano intro on “Feel Good,” produced by will.i.am, brings it all acoustic and then the techno beat drops and suddenly we’re in Ibiza. He says “If I ran out of money would you pay for me?” A nice bit of humble emasculation right after the big dick reminder. I’m guessing he would have to buy a country before he runs out of money but he wants to make sure that if that happens, she has his back!
“Go Stupid 4 U,” another will.i.am jam, starts with a cute little ukulele and then the sawtooth bass and beat drop. He’s talking about a girl being hot and walking right by him. The verse is not so inspired — he sings kind of like an old man — but the chorus has a nice key change and melody. I’m not so into this one — I’m getting a bit tired of the generic cut-out hot chick in every song.
“Top of the World” has a ’90s Tony! Toni! Toné! vibe, at least to me, and a little Sade-style sax melody. Seems like it’s about a girl with a drug problem, which is a nice bit of depth from Mr. Big Thicke.
“4 the Rest of My Life” — OK, now we’re talking. It’s a soul ballad with cool, dark strings, with almost a Kurt Weill vibe in the melodic movement. It sounds like he actually enjoyed singing it, maybe because it sounds like he’s singing to someone he actually knows and loves. Probably his wife. Makes a difference when a singer sings about something he knows. Contrast that with “Put Your Lovin’ on Me” (a bonus track produced by Bay Area production duo the Cataracs). It has a slow southern beat — actually, it sounds like a strip club— but lyrically, it’s the same shit. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about — he might as well be singing in Chinese. It’s meaningless, but then, I suppose, meaning is not the point.
Talent and options and money and time are all really good things to have when you’re making a record. But you also need good ideas. Robin Thicke can definitely sing his ass off, and he and Pro-Jay made a big, clean, “perfect”-sounding record, but I can hear them thinking about money and being a little too conscious of trying to manufacture hits. It doesn’t sound like anyone really had anything to say, artistically, and it winds up sounding a bit paint-by-numbers. There’s something for everyone, and not in a good way. It’s like I can hear the competitive marketplace in this music.
It’s just frustrating that people on this level aren’t using that gigantic platform to really talk to people about something. The fathers of this kind of music — Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Michael Jackson — always had very definitive statements, and even if they made a love song, it was decidedly a love song and not some kind of default setting. The thing is, these guys are already rich, and they can afford to take risks; it won’t matter much in the long run if they take a chance and it fails on the charts.
I do, however, get the sense that Robin Thicke is a good guy. It’s in there somewhere.