It’s an unusually hot and humid summer night in Hollywood. A murmuring line of fans — mostly women –snakes around the Sunset Boulevard perimeter of the House of Blues. They’re waiting for one thing and one thing only: Robin Thicke.
Inside the crowded venue, women begin yelling as Thicke’s band troops onstage to some James Brown funk and the announcer promises “a true soul experience.” Then the whole room seemingly undulates as Thicke, his slender frame encased in black, bounds onstage and launches into his new ’70s soul-grooved track “Magic.”
That afternoon in an upstairs dressing room, a sound check-bound Thicke mused about the audiences that have been queuing up as he sets the stage for the Sept. 30 release of his anticipated third album, “Something Else.” “What’s great about the bigger cities are the numbers of interracial couples who come,” he says. (The singer/songwriter is married to actress Paula Patton, who is black.) Thicke adds, “I’m seeing a cross between the girls who want to come out and have fun and the couples who come to enjoy a loving environment.”
Race never seems to be far from the mind of Thicke, who was heralded for furthering the next generation of blue-eyed soul after the platinum success of his second album, “The Evolution of Robin Thicke.” Produced entirely by Thicke and his longtime collaborator Pro-Jay, “Something Else” is described by the artist as a cross between “classic Philly, Motown and ’70s black disco meets the creativity of the Beatles and Bob Dylan. It just felt to me that a lot of stuff out there sounds the same. It’s a time for change, for something else.”
The welcome mat being rolled out now for Thicke is a far cry from the lukewarm reception the artist encountered in 2003 for his Nu America/Interscope album “A Beautiful World.” Initially titled “Cherry Blue Skies,” the R&B-vibed set gained some notice by way of lead single “When I Get You Alone,” which sampled Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven.” But many inside and outside the industry didn’t know what to make of the unshaven, long-haired artist going only by his last name. “I was just rebelling,” Thicke recalls, “trying to do something different. I actually challenged myself, saying, ‘I won’t cut my hair until I hear my song on the radio.’ ”
Thicke heard plenty of his work on the radio—but it was for other artists he’d penned songs for, like Christina Aguilera and Usher. (He won a Grammy Award for his collaboration on the latter’s 2004 album “Confessions.”) But the son of singer Gloria Loring and actor Alan Thicke (“Growing Pains”) wouldn’t hear his own singles on the radio until after he’d signed to the Neptunes’ Interscope-distributed Star Trak label.
Here, Thicke sits down with Billboard and candidly discusses his career path leading up to “Something Else”—and how the “blue-eyed soul” label has come to chafe.
What was your frame of mind while recording “Something Else”?
My music is going to be exactly what I’m going through and feeling at the time. I don’t walk in with a concept. I just write songs and by the time I get to the end, I say, “OK, this is what the songs seem to be talking about as a whole opposed to individual moments.”
These new songs are talking about a time for change and hope; to get away from all the sadness, loneliness and depression that I used to live in. This album expresses the celebration I’m going through and the healing I want to give to people. It’s also about what’s going on in the world with politics and race. The closer Barack Obama gets to the White House, it’s all about race now. They’re all trying to make it seem like he is playing the race card when he’s just an American running for president. How my wife and I still aren’t able to walk in Mississippi without people looking at us like we’re crazy. The laws may have changed, but the whispering hasn’t.
Unlike “Evolution,” there aren’t any guests on “Something Else.” Was that a conscious decision?
It’s never conscious. It’s always organic of what sounds the best and what happened when I wrote the song. With Faith [Evans], we were writing something for her album, and I liked the song so much that I wanted to put it on my album. With [Star Trak and Neptunes production team principal] Pharrell, that was a request from [Interscope Geffen A&M chairman] Jimmy Iovine.
Lil Wayne just called me out of nowhere, saying he loved “Oh Shooter” from my first album and could he put it on his “Carter II” album. I am considering putting another song I did with Lil Wayne, “Tie My Hands,” on “Something Else.”
A new remix of “Magic” I did with Mary J. Blige sounds so incredible that I might put it on the album as a bonus track. We’re going out on tour together Oct. 17. But I don’t miss anybody when I listen to the album. I like the way it sounds.
What spurred you to pursue a music career at 16?
Actually, Brian McKnight signed me as a singer to his production company when I was 14. Then I signed with Interscope at 16 through Brian and began working on an album. All my friends called me “Brian McWhite” because I was so inspired by him and his music.
So what led to finally releasing your first album, “A Beautiful World”?
The question became, Was I willing to be the one who stands up onstage like they were doing; willing to be ridiculed or get tomatoes thrown at me? Was I willing to go from artist to entertainer? At 22 I decided to put all my time and energy into my own album.
Coincidentally, [veteran label exec/producer] Andre Harrell showed up looking for songs for another artist. He heard me sing and said, “Wait a minute. How come you’re not singing the songs? You sound way better than he’s going to sound.” So Andre starts mentoring me and we go back to Interscope. And Jimmy Iovine says, “What do you mean you want a record deal? Didn’t I sign you when you were 12 years old?”
So I went back with a few new songs, one of which was “When I Get You Alone.” Jimmy signed me right away to a very respectable deal. He put a whole bunch of money behind me and the next thing you know we were nine months late in releasing the album.
Anyway, by the time we finished the whole process, we sold only 70,000 records. After putting a lot of money behind me, the label pretty much lost faith in my ability to sell. It became a question of, “Where does he fit? Is he not rock or pop enough? Is he not soul enough?”
Although the album was an economic failure, I had Usher, Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, Lil Wayne, Pharrell, Puff Daddy and others calling to work with me. So I wrote songs for other artists, while telling the label I wanted to go right back into the studio. But the label and I began having quarrels about financial and creative issues, resulting in a stalemate for about 10 months. Then Pharrell got his label deal going with Interscope and asked when my next album was coming out. We met and I played him “Lost Without U”—three years before the record ever comes out.
What turning point helped change “Lost” and “Evolution” into success stories?
Opening for John Legend. At that point the label still really didn’t believe. They’re thinking about that first album and the first “Evolution” single, “Wanna Love You Girl” with Pharrell. [A later remix featured Busta Rhymes.] I’m still not getting that [major] hit, so they didn’t want to pay for me to go on tour with Legend. My management company at the time, Overbrook Entertainment, fronted the money to make sure I ended up on that tour [in late 2006]. And sooner than later it came back: “Lost” became a No. 1 R&B hit.
What is the major difference between your first two albums?
“World” was about expression and the limitless possibilities of music. I just tried to do anything and everything on it. When I go back and listen to it now, it’s a bit of a showoff album. It’s a lot of dribbling through the legs and behind-the-back passes.
The second album is about a guy who’s been stripped of everything. He doesn’t have any money and is about to lose his house. His wife is off becoming a movie star and everyone else is pretty much leaving him. All the cool friends I’d had stopped inviting me to parties. I was all alone at home writing songs on my piano about what I was feeling. Thus came “Complicated,” “Can U Believe,” “I Need Love,” “2 the Sky” and “Angels.” All these songs were about brokenhearted loneliness and hopelessness; trying to still believe in myself.
Did you consider quitting music altogether?
No, because music is my life. There were a couple of thoughts about maybe quitting on life altogether. I didn’t have the knife on my arm, but emotionally I thought, “God, what am I here for? You tell me that I’m supposed to make music. I feel this and know I’m supposed to, but you won’t give it to me.”
However, that defeat turns out to be the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I was a very cocky young kid. Having been knocked down and pushed to the ground made me appreciate life, my friends and all the people who help me have a hit. Gratitude and appreciation are some of the greatest gifts of life, and that’s what I’ve come to live in.
Were your parents’ connections with the entertainment industry a help or a hindrance?
It never helped. It’s always been a hindrance, still to this day.
People can’t see me without seeing them, and it affects the way people see me. On late-night talk shows I’ve heard remarks like, “Isn’t his dad kind of straight and corny?” and “How can he be cool when his dad was on a TV show that wouldn’t be cool by any standards?”
When you listen to Jay-Z’s music, you don’t see his mother and father standing there. You don’t even think of his mother and father. But if you knew all of Jay-Z’s family, you might think of him differently. With me, people still visualize my dad and that affects the origin of the music.
In a 2006 billboard.com interview, you said you realized that your music and your career are two different things. Do you still feel that way?
Yes, because I love my music unconditionally when nobody else does. Everyone cares how it performs and, obviously, I care how it performs. But before I release it, I sit there with it, adore and enjoy it. So my music and I have a wonderful relationship. My career and I . . . we’re always in the boxing ring.
Do you buy into the blue-eyed soul tag you’ve been given?
It’s a joke. It’s like saying I can’t do rock’n’roll. As musicians, we’re dying for those things to go away. We’re just hoping we can make the music that we want to and not be pigeonholed by our skin color. Yet it affects me all the time.
What is it like trying to break the color line from the other side?
When I did a recent interview with Vibe magazine I asked, “Why can’t I get the cover? This is a magazine I love. If there’s one magazine that I’d want to be on the cover of, it’s Vibe.” Their response was they don’t have white artists on the cover; that the only white artist they’ve had on the cover was Eminem. I guess if that’s what it is, it is what it is. And I respect that because I live in a house with a black woman.
I won’t use the word “racism.” I will say it’s a tough—but rewarding—fight. I look at Mary J. Blige, somebody who has had only a few pop hits and yet has changed culture, generated new sounds and inspired leagues of artists. She’s now a worldwide phenomenon. And it’s because of what she stood for; she never gave up. She kept making great music, pouring her heart out to people.
You can’t always expect people to be as colorblind or open-minded as you want. What you can do is keep giving your heart and soul, like Bob Marley did. His music became so overwhelmingly loving; it was a relentless love in a sense. Keep beating them down with love and they can’t stop you.
What question about your music has become your pet peeve?
People ask me, “Why did you choose to make R&B music?” R&B music chose me. I have no choice; I make what I love. That’s like asking, “Why did you choose that woman to marry?” It just happened. I’m a soulful artist who crosses genres of music just like Sly Stone, Prince, Stevie Wonder and the Beatles.
At 7 years old, I was listening to Michael Jackson and Prince; Van Halen and Poison. I didn’t relate to the loud and long hair as much as I did the soulfulness. At 13 I was wearing Cross Colours and listening to N.W.A. I thought there were a lot of white kids like me. But the older I got I realized that white kids weren’t doing what I was also doing at 13, singing songs by Aretha Franklin, Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, Guy and Boyz II Men. So the music I’m making now is not the result of a career choice. It’s who the fuck I am. Period.