The begging begins about 55 seconds into "You're My Fantasy," the opening track on "Paula." Over gentle salsa strums, Robin Thicke pleads "please" seven times in a row to a woman whose absence feels ghostlike ("I can smell your perfume/-Your legs are on my walls/Your body's on my ceiling/Your giggle down the hall"). "Paula," Thicke's seventh album, is a post-breakup record, named after his high school sweetheart and now estranged wife, actress Paula Patton. And it's a sharp departure from the blithe mood of 2013's "Blurred Lines," which gave him a No. 1 smash.
The couple separated in February, with some tabloids blaming Thicke's alleged infidelity. "Paula" is his chance to atone and, as the lead single is titled, "Get Her Back." But an apology album from an already emotionally exposed singer, who wrote about male insecurity on "Lost Without U," isn't that riveting. In the pantheon of male R&B divorcé music, ego and rage tend to be much more compelling. Marvin Gaye's 1978 "Hear, My Dear" — a bitter ode to his ex-wife, Anna Gordy — was selfish yet vulnerable, inspiring a lifetime of imitators. On the thrilling "Terius Nash: 1977," a scorned The-Dream depicted ex-wife Christina Milian as a gold digger and threatened to crash her next wedding. Usher practically flung divorce papers at his ex, Tameka Raymond, on 2010's "Raymond v. Raymond."
Rather than fury, "Paula" is all guilt. On "The Opposite of Me," he sadly examines his faults: "All that she needed was a true friend/All that she received was a troubled man/She couldn't be with someone like her dad/And I just rewarded her with my drunken rants." Even when he's taking some pleasure in mischief ("Something Bad"), he seems to say it wasn't worth it.
Like Thicke's candor, the music occasionally comes off stunt-ish. Thicke's brand of affable, breezy R&B is supplanted with kitschy sock hop ("Tippy Toes") and melodramatic narrations on songs that could moonlight as off-Broadway musical numbers. It's either oddly catchy ("Something Bad") or way too hammy (the James Brown impressions on "Living in New York City").
Of course, the real-life drama adds intrigue. Thicke refreshingly lets a woman's voice chime in on "Lock the Door," where a backup vocalist sings, "I kept trying to warn you, you were slowly breaking my heart." Is that supposed to be Patton? And did she really try to hit him with his "favorite golf club," as he sings on "Black Tar Cloud"? ("Yelling and screaming and smacking me/How could you do this, you spoiled little rich kid?")
If it sounds like TMI, that's because it is. "Paula" plays off how invasive and uncomfortable a celebrity breakup is — not just for the couple involved, but for those watching and, in this case, listening. Fans want to know, but maybe not this much. After the devil-may-care disco of "Blurred Lines," Thicke's career peak, "Paula's" introspection seems half-baked. It is Thicke's personal love letter for Patton — and comes off as relevant mostly just to the two of them.