Despite the fact that R&B singer Robin Thicke has sold well in the past and even topped the R&B charts, he’s never made the difficult jump from genre success to pop ubiquity, until now. For his newest album, Blurred Lines, Thicke decided that the yearning ballads and light bossa nova he’s been making since 2003 aren’t doing the trick. So he brought in some of the biggest pop producers of the last decade, including Pharrell and Dr. Luke, to make music he has described in interviews as “escapist”. And he also studied some of musical escapism’s best proponents: Michael Jackson, Chic, and Quincy Jones. As Jackson once sang in “Off the Wall”, “when the world is on your shoulders…boogie down.” Thicke took note and boogied his way to number one, with the help of some naked ladies.
The first half of Thicke’s album effectively emulates the fluttering funk and lush disco popular in the late ‘70s. This music swells and falls in satisfying waves; making it required skill and tremendous attention to detail, but the music lands with a gentle nudge and a seemingly effortless caress. Thicke melds a driving beat, choppy funk guitar with all the edges planed down smooth, flicks of slap bass, stair-step horns, and waves of backing vocals enveloping the lead.
It’s gleaming, fast-paced, sugar-coated. Of course, Thicke is not the only falsetto-wielding white pop star climbing the stairway up the charts, and at times he sounds a lot like a competitor, Justin Timberlake. (Their occasional sonic similarity does not extend to their looks, though in a recent New York Times profile of the singer, teenagers did ask Thicke if he was Timberlake.) Pick your Timberlake-like moment on Blurred Lines—the vocals on “Oooh La La” or “Ain’t No Hat 4 That” (which also channels Hall and Oates “I Can’t Go For That”), the beat to “Give It 2 U,” which owes much to JT’s “SexyBack.” However, Thicke never confuses length with artistic vitality, a problem that has plagued Timberlake.
Though Thicke avoids the temptation of unnecessary length, Blurred Lines loses its charm when it stops trying to resurrect Michael Jackson. In the second half of the album, Thicke largely drops the funk, instead bringing in club-centric electronics and inserting a few ballads for old time’s sake, with disappointing results. The clubby synths are an unimaginative concession to the current state of pop, since that first-half funk was plenty danceable and significantly less clunky. The ballads feel tacked on, especially since they only show up at the end, and they lack the pull of classic early Thicke (“Lost Without You”).
But at this point, the main question hovering over this album is not whether Thicke’s new emphasis on boogying away from life’s problems is incompatible with his old abilities as a balladeer. Cue the naked ladies. All the music on the album has been overshadowed by its title track, which is both the number one pop hit Thicke has long hoped for and the recipient of plenty of negative attention from critics and women’s rights groups, thanks in large part to its instantly notorious video. The video contains three bare breasted models prancing around while Thicke, the producer Pharrell, and the rapper T.I. frolic. The men are dressed in black formal wear that stands out next to the bare skin and white underwear worn by the women. Pharrell, ever dapper, also sports a straw hat.
Most of the time, the video for the song is plain silly, almost a caricature of a music video. In one particularly unsubtle scene, the video backdrop informs viewers that “Robin Thicke has a big dick.” The singer also talks up his endowment in “Give It 2 U”. Who knew escapism involved all this penis-size assessment? Thicke does some strutting and hip wiggling, but doesn’t seem capable of much else—or to care that’s he’s not capable of much else. There’s plenty of clowning for the camera, a pair of giant dice, an oversized bicycle, and a massive syringe.
Musically, “Blurred Lines” is hardly more than a pulsing rhythm section, the kind of stripped-down funk that has long been Pharrell’s trademark mixed in with Thicke’s zest for the late ‘70s (Thicke cited Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up” as an influence). Thicke and Pharrell played well together on “Wanna Love You Girl”, from 2006, one of Thicke’s liveliest early tracks. T.I., who reliably assists R&B singers with hits—Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” and R. Kelly’s “I’m a Flirt”—also raps a verse. Complete with “hey hey heys” and a cowbell that ensures that even the most resistant listeners will notice the beat, “Blurred Lines” is music you dance to.
The lyrics are the source of most of the trouble. One lyric in particular: Thicke sings, “I know you want it”, suggesting that refusing his advances is meaningless, just a step in a coy game. At best this is a dumb line (no blurring) at worst an offensive one, although Thicke isn’t the first singer to use it and almost certainly won’t be the last, especially now that using it seems to have been partially responsible for his stay on top of the charts. Despite all this, Thicke might still have escaped notice if he hadn’t named the tune “Blurred Lines”. When applied to naked women and flirtation, this blurriness may suggest disregarding whatever boundaries ladies might put in place, setting off alarm bells.
Thicke is hardly the only R&B singer trying to sex up his videos, he’s just the one who seems the most gleeful about it. Timberlake’s recently released “Tunnel Vision” video contained a number of writhing topless dancers and an overactive smoke machine that reeked of faux-seriousness. JT’s song begins with the repeated phrase “I know you like it”, but he hasn’t attracted the same sort of ridicule as Thicke, maybe because JT dances alone, always completely separate from the ladies—though his face does appear at one point looking through several women with his eyes roughly at breast level—or because everyone finds him too lovable to critique. Timberlake sticks to the classic monomania that gets passed off as crazy-in-love, though it could just as easily be creepy: “I’ve got tunnel vision for you.” (Another singer, the Weeknd, has topless ladies in his videos too, though he hasn’t sold enough records at this point to merit attention.)
Thicke’s not just looking to lift the smoothness from the late ‘70s, he’s also looking to steal from—and make fun of?—rap videos’ sexiness. R&B and hip-hop have a competitive and cannibalistic relationship. Hip-hop came along in the ‘80s and ‘90s, rearranged soul and funk songs to make hip-hop beats, and then drafted R&B singers to provide hooks. Hip-hop also heisted R&B’s sexiness, sales, and critical attention.
Since then, R&B has fought back by preying on its predator. Mary J. Blige gained favor as the queen of hip-hop soul; D’Angelo earned praise for infusing the music of the ‘70s with the pulse of rap. R. Kelly sold millions of albums by adeptly mixing R&B and rap through constant collaboration, speak-singing, and calling himself as an R&B thug. From beats to breasts: R&B hasn’t just reached for hip-hop’s percussion, it has reached for its look. Hip-hop videos consistently offer the most female bare skin, so it’s no surprise that R&B singers want in on that too, and the dancers are now losing their tops. Lyrics and breasts aside, the “Blurred Lines” video is either ridiculous or just plain inept. Dancers gyrate, but not in sexual ways.
Thicke said that he and Pharrell had no intention of creating a controversy, only a hit. But would “Blurred Lines” have become a hit without the video? It’s hard to believe the song’s creators didn’t know what they were doing, especially since Pharrell has always had a knack for the charts. In fact, it’s more comforting to believe they knew exactly what they’re doing; otherwise, we have to believe that they actually think the things they sing about. Most likely, after years spent trying to climb to the top as a smooth, honeyed love man, Thicke decided to go with sex, which still sells. And that line is unlikely to blur—or change at all—any time soon.