“I wouldn’t be so damn sensitive, I’d let things go by,” Robin Thicke sings on Dreamworld. “No matter what the weather, I’d learn to change, I’d change with the time.”
The crooning R&B line-blurrer was performing at a private mini-gig last week in Toronto, where he shot into town on a promotional blitz for an album that seems to be doing just fine without the media-kissing.
For this swank appearance at an east-end recording studio, Thicke meets and greets and performs three songs, including a karaoke version of Blurred Lines , his massively popular breakthrough single of the summer.
For Dreamworld, a utopic ballad off 2008’s Something Else album, he mans a baby grand piano and sings soulfully about the question of what or who needs to evolve – is it him, or is it everybody else? The answer is a little of both. The world has caught up to Thicke, an artist who altered his approach enough to allow it to happen.
In athletic parlance, he’s let the game come to him.
Prior to the evening showcase, Thicke spoke in his hotel room. He’s an easy-breezy boyish fellow of 36, with mannish hands, a million-dollar smile and hair that arrives in rooms just a touch before the rest of him. “Would it kill you,” he asks, “if I grabbed a smoke out the window?”
Getting the go-ahead, he quickly strips the window of its screen and dangles a cigarette out of it between draws. “Success is a bittersweet thing, my man,” he murmurs, alluding to the inconveniences of being places other than home, “but the problems are good ones.”
On the one previous occasion I had chatted with Thicke, he flamboyantly objected to comparisons with Justin Timberlake. “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard,” he said in 2007, when it was casually mentioned that his record label was selling him as a “smoother Timberlake.” He broke off the interview for a minute in order to scold his bewildered team. “Let’s get that phrase eliminated immediately,” he told them, before sitting back down.
And now? Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience is selling very well, but his moment as a blue-eyed-soul innovator and R&B leader is something seen with rear view. On the other hand, Thicke, after years of trying, finally has a No. 1 pop single. His audience, previously composed of a largely black, female demographic, has broadened.
The New York Times, commenting on this charismatic artist and his moment, described Thicke as having “the look of a man finally coming into the privilege he was sure was his all along.”
When asked about that quote, Thicke smiles. “Well put,” he says. “They’re smart over at The New York Times.”
But do they have it right? “Maybe not privilege, but the dream,” Thicke continues. “When you start out to do something and do it well and try your best, you always have the finish line in mind.”
The son of Canadian entertainer Alan Thicke and actress/singer Gloria Loring, young Thicke’s solo career stumbled out of the starting block. His debut 2003 album Beautiful World failed commercially, sending the upstart into a funk that was not the super-fly, Curtis Mayfield kind. “I have gone through my bouts with depression and frustration, and all of that stuff,” Thicke admits. “But, now, you can’t argue with my success. The record is No. 1.”
Blurred Lines has now topped the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 consecutive weeks, making it just one of eight songs by a solo male artist to rule that long in the chart’s 55-year history. The album (Thicke’s sixth, also titled Blurred Lines ) debuted more than a week ago at No. 1.
As for the comparisons with Timberlake, Thicke now accepts them with a shrug instead of resistance. “It’s inevitable,” he says. “We’re both white guys inspired by black music and black culture, and we’re inspired by a lot of the same artists.”
One of those shared tastes is an appreciation of Marvin Gaye. The Sexual Healing singer’s Got to Give It Up was the inspiration behind Blurred Lines, an upbeat party-starter co-written with professional collaborator Pharrell Williams that has caused controversy for its naughty lyrics and lewd video. (It is believed that Gaye’s family and Bridgeport Music, which owns some of Funkadelic’s compositions, are independently considering litigation because of Blurred Lines’s similarities with Got to Give It Up and Funkadelic’s Sexy Ways.
In a pre-emptive move, Thicke has filed a lawsuit against Gaye’s family and Bridgeport to shield the song and set the record, as it were, straight.)
“We’re just a couple of fools who wrote a fun song,” says the happily married Thicke, whose sexy-pants act has been done winkingly but just convincingly enough throughout his career. “I’m not trying to think over people’s head on this one. This album is all about smiling and laughing and having a good time together.”
The success of the breezy-bawdy lead single prompted Thicke to write and record four new tunes for the album, giving the record more good-time boogaloo. Two of those songs, Ooo La La and Get in My Way, would seem to share the disco DNA of Daft Punk’s latest, Get Lucky. To my deft implication of his style swiping, the perma-smiling Thicke takes no offence. “Nice,” he says, finding a compliment in the insinuation.
In addition to working with Williams, other pop-music professionals brought in included will.i.am, Dr. Luke and Timbaland. Their input, and the initial success of the lead single, pushed Thicke toward a looser version of himself. “Most of my albums have been more introspective, with me soul searching,” he explains. “But in life, this is who I am. Everywhere I go I try to spread positivity and good times – parties, you know?”
Perhaps I do know. Later, at the private gig for Visa-holding fans, Thicke does a swell imitation of his father that has everyone in the room chuckling. Then, upon presentation of a plaque that commemorates the six-times platinum success of the Blurred Lines single in Canada, he comments on his state of mind. “You can tell by my cheesy smile that I’m pretty happy,” he tells everyone, flashing a Timberlake-eating grin. After which, he gives autographs to his people. He is laughing with them. And he is laughing last.