That popularity has also obscured the curious case of Thicke’s career trajectory since his mainstream breakthrough, 2006′s The Evolution of Robin Thicke. He made a splash with the platinum single “Lost Without U,” a classicist, adult contemporary bossa nova slow burn that couldn’t be further from the playful, cocky and outright misogynist tingle of “Blurred Lines.” Thicke spent the next few albums bouncing back and forth between his desire to be taken seriously as a blue-eyed soul crooner (2008’s Something Else) and his need for mainstream R&B acceptance (2009’s Sex Therapy). For Blurred Lines, even Thicke admitted he wanted to take himself less seriously, and the result is an escapist album of slick, occasionally clubby soul, R&B and disco.
The album has Pharrell Williams back on the dials (for the first time since he executive produced Evolution and Something Else) along with entrenched hitmakers Timbaland and Dr. Luke. The genesis of the title track set the tone for the album: Williams and Thicke basically wanted to make their own version of Marvin Gaye’s grooving 1977 hit “Got To Give It Up,” writing and recording what would become the monster hit in about an hour and a half. “We started acting like we were two old men on a porch hollering at girls,” Thicke told GQ back in May regarding the song’s vibe.
That’s the sort of casually objectifying viewpoint that has made“Blurred Lines,” and the ensuing NSFW video, a flashpoint of controversy. This sort of dialog only happens with a song that has tens of millions of YouTube views, but, politics aside, it’s an effervescent, disco earworm that’s as infectious as any pop single of the past few years, and it managed to make a mainstream splash without Thicke needing to sacrifice his classic soul and R&B fascinations.
The rest of the album takes more than its fair share of cues from Pharrell’s newfound obsession with the Nile Rodgers disco guitars that were deployed on “Get Lucky” to such great effect, popping up on the rosy Bee Gees-lite “Ooo La La” and the Brazilian-inflected bump “Ain’t No Hat For That,” two tracks that get the job done as far as the dance floor is concerned, but don’t make much of an impact beyond lightweight fun. Thicke’s desire to unearth new ground in his beloved R&B standards is still present on the Bill Withers-cribbing, album-closing cut “The Good Life” which is too damn smile-inducing to ignore, and “Top of the World,” a sepia-toned New Jack Swing throwback that sounds and feels effortless.
But when he tries to adopt the house music thump of the Hot 100, the results are hit or miss. “Take It Easy On Me” is a seriously lazy Timbaland production (I feel like he has been on autopilot lately) that blasts the chorus with cheap day-glo synths that appear to be ripped from a Kidz Bop cover of Ke$ha’s “Die Young.” The Dr. Luke-helmed Kendrick Lamar duet “Give It 2 U” works in spite of itself, though. Clanging drum machines and distorted synths wrap the simple, hypnotic verses sung-rapped by Thicke in a lower register, before erupting with his falsetto for the hook. This time, the crescendo of house beats behind Thicke in the chorus are thick and shine brightly, meriting their inclusion next to his absurdly velvety voice. If it slips out of the monolithic shadow of “Blurred Lines”’ success, and maybe receives its own controversial video treatment, “Give It 2 U” has a good chance to break through for its own run in the spotlight.
But honestly, there’s still a big question that surrounds the release of Blurred Lines: will audiences be prepared to look past the ubiquitous appeal of the title track to find the buried gems on this well-constructed, but ultimately slight, record from arguably the best blue-eyed soul singer of the past decade? (Sorry, Justin.) It remains to be seen, but in the meantime, these are pretty good problems for Robin Thicke to have.
Best Song That’s Not the Single: On “The Good Life,” Thicke crafts a Sunday morning sunrise that’s simply beautiful and genuinely, unequivocally happy.
Pops Like: A neo-soul record that begs to be unfurled on the dance floor.
Idolator Score: 3/5
— Patrick Bowman