“Let me introduce you to my lady,” says Robin Thicke, walking through the expansive living room of his home in Malibu, Calif. “Ohhh” — he stops suddenly — “she’s breastfeeding.”
The singer’s fiancée, model April Love Geary, waves serenely from a sofa, where she’s feeding Lola Alain Thicke, who was born in February. We beat a quick retreat, to a pathway leading from the front door to Thicke’s music studio, as a steady flow of people — his band, a nanny, an assistant bearing a tray of cheese and fruit, and even daughter Mia Love, born a year before her baby sister — pass in and out. Thicke and his family moved into this massive Tuscan-style villa after his previous home, just down the Pacific Coast Highway, was destroyed last November in the Woolsey Fire.
For Thicke, 42, it was the latest in a series of difficulties that began after his smash “Blurred Lines” topped global charts in the summer of 2013, ultimately becoming the No. 2 year-end song for both the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts. Co-written by Thicke and producer Pharrell Williams, it had an infectious groove evoking Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got To Give It Up.” But for the Gaye estate, the resemblance was too strong, and it filed a copyright infringement lawsuit.
Previously, Thicke had several years of consistent success on the R&B singles charts, mostly as a singer, but also writing and producing for other artists. He always seemed like an amiable dude in on the joke of stardom — the George Clooney of the club jam. “Blurred Lines” was his first blockbuster hit, and almost immediately, it turned both his career and his life upside down, with much of it as bad as good.
In depositions for the lawsuit the next year, Thicke said he was drunk and high on Vicodin while recording “Blurred Lines” and that, despite the co-writing credit, Williams wrote “almost every single part of the song.” But by then, the lawsuit was only one of a growing pile of problems for Thicke. A Daily Beast writer had denounced the song as “kind of rapey,” and the video — which featured three models wearing shoes and not much more — was banned from YouTube and criticized as at best archaic and, at worst, sexist.
By February 2014, Thicke and his wife, actress Paula Patton, had separated, and Thicke seemed to admit he had been unfaithful to her. That summer, he released Paula — a concept album about getting back together with her — that tanked both personally (they divorced the next year) and professionally (its lone single, “Get Her Back,” peaked at No. 82 on the Hot 100; on Metacritic, the album has an average user rating of 1.5 out of 10, in the “overwhelming dislike” category).
A little over a year later, a Los Angeles jury found that “Blurred Lines” had infringed Gaye’s composition and awarded the Gaye estate over $7.3 million (since reduced to just under $5 million). It was an unprecedented verdict that surprised many in the music industry, since the outcomes of such cases depend on specific melodies, not a mood or style. Then, in late 2016, Thicke’s father — Growing Pains star Alan Thicke — died while playing hockey in L.A. The next month, Patton accused Thicke of physical abuse, which he denied; sought sole custody of their son Julian Fuego (now 9 years old); and was granted a temporary restraining order against him. A few months later, the two agreed to joint custody of Julian.
Six years after “Blurred Lines,” it’s unclear what damage, if any, these personal tribulations have done to Thicke’s career. In 2015 and 2016, he released four singles, including collaborations with Nicki Minaj and Nas, but none even touched the Hot 100. His management moved to Roc Nation, and he has a new label deal with EMPIRE, where he’s at work on an album he hopes to release in September. First single “Testify” reached No. 18 on the R&B Digital Song Sales chart in December; the next, “That’s What Love Can Do,” peaked at No. 17 on the Adult R&B airplay chart in early April.
Partway through our conversation, Thicke asks if I’d like to hear some new songs. He ushers me into his studio, which smells strongly of weed, and plays me a few — lively quiet storm jams celebrating the good life, one of which sounds like a potential mainstream hit.
In person, clad in all black and adorned with silver jewelry (including a ring on each pinky), Thicke exudes the regal ease of a man who greatly enjoys his life. He prefers a breezy joke to somber introspection. When I ask if “Blurred Lines” was a curse as well as a blessing, he replies, “No. Regret is boring in this situation.” Tattoos celebrating his son and fiancée poke out of his short-sleeved shirt, and he wants two more, for his daughters. He’s also thinking about inking a tattoo of fire, alongside a quote from author Charles Bukowski: What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.
What did you lose in the Woolsey Fire?
My piano that I had for 22 years that I wrote every song on. That hurt, because I was going to leave it to my son. But I got my computer, with all my [unreleased] music on it, plus my dad’s photo albums and some guitars. It’s kind of a blur now. Most of our neighborhood was decimated.
You’re talking about losing your house, but you’re smiling. Why?
We got lucky enough to land in a place like this. We have a roof over our heads, and my children are healthy and happy. I didn’t lose my album! [Laughs.] It’s what’s most important to me: my family and my music.
That wasn’t the first time your life had been turned upside down in the last few years. Is it possible you’re just used to it?
Yeah. Pretty much all the clichés that befall a musician all seemed to happen within a few years for me. But I have my son watching me every day, and some of the references I make on the album are, without it being obvious, about my love for him and the life I want to lead to make him proud.
“Blurred Lines” spent 12 weeks at No. 1. How did that change your life?
I felt like a basketball player — I finally got that ring, and it’s the end of a long run. I was 16 when I had my first record deal as a singer and songwriter, and I was 36 when “Blurred Lines” hit. I was able to reach markets I’d never reached. When you’re a kid, you want to perform at Wembley [Stadium] someday. You want to perform in the Philippines and Indonesia. That song opened up my music to a much broader audience.
How long did the feeling last?
I don’t think it lasts. But for those 12 weeks, it was great.
Then people started calling the song “rapey.” I think there was a disconnect: Your fans knew you as a guy who had married his junior high school girlfriend, had a goofy sense of humor and sang about sex in a way that was loving and caring —
And playful. “Sex Therapy,” for instance, is a very playful lyric. [Laughs.] And the album was called Sex Therapy, which is very tongue-in-cheek. My father was a comedian. We come from a family of a little twinkle in the eye, a little wry British humor.
To people who didn’t know you, can you understand why the song seemed sketchy?
Well, it’s in the eyes of the beholder.
You were 7 when your parents divorced. Is that when you started listening to hip-hop?
Yes. I started with Kurtis Blow and then found Run-D.M.C. I dove into hip-hop as soon as I got a whiff of it. I’d go to Tower Records and buy all the rap singles on cassette.
My dad loved Hollywood. He was from a small mining town in northern Ontario, and he just loved show business. Loved the Kardashian Christmas party! Never missed it. When I was a kid, he’d drag me to all these events. I’m an extrovert, so I made friends with older kids. I’d go to 7-Eleven to play video games, and I made friends with some kids, mostly black and Latin and Asian, and I’d be like, “Hey, you guys want to come over? I’ve got a basketball hoop at my house and a Coke machine.” [Laughs.] We started playing basketball, and then I had a crew of guys that loved hip-hop.
My two sides were, I loved hip-hop and I loved singers — sangers, you know? I’d listen to Jodeci and Mary J. Blige and Boyz II Men and Take 6, studying these guys, and then I’m listening to Snoop Dogg in the car with my buddies.
In June 2015, you said an album called Morning Sun would be released that year. What happened to it?
It was a collection of songs I had worked on with different producers. Some of that was trying to chase the success of “Blurred Lines.” When you have that level of success, you want to taste it again. I released [the song] “Morning Sun” and “Back Together,” which I did with [producer] Max Martin, which is a fun record. But I didn’t have a body of songs I thought was right. The artistry was diluted.
So next, I went more in another direction, my soul and R&B direction. Then my father passed, and I scrapped everything once again. The first quality song I wrote, about six months later, was “That’s What Love Can Do.” And then a week later, I wrote “Testify” to honor my dad. I got that out of my system, and then I could move on to make happy music again.
Have you worked with Pharrell in recent years?
I have a record with Pharrell that we started five or six years ago, and then we went back in the studio a couple years ago and revamped it. There’s some good songs, but it doesn’t have that thing.
Did you know “Blurred Lines” had that thing?
Everybody in my life — Paula; my [then] manager, Jordan Feldstein — was saying, “I love that song.” So Jordan, who passed away [in late 2017], rest in peace, found the money and got the video shot. And when Jimmy Iovine saw it, he went, “This is going to be No. 1 around the world, Robin.” Jimmy pushed the button, the Jimmy Button, and the next thing you knew, we had a commercial for Beats. And we were No. 1 about six weeks later.
When I heard “That’s What Love Can Do,” what came to mind pretty quickly was the Stylistics song “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” Do you —
I want to be careful with what you’re treading on here.
I understand. But that’s also my point. You’re a guy who used to talk openly about his influences, and now, if I say your song evokes The Stylistics, you have to say —
I don’t have to. To be honest, I realize that it’s just Robin Thicke music now. It’s just the creativity that’s above us in the clouds. This is something that came out of my soul and heart. There’s no intention to sound like anybody else.
I’m asking if, in the studio since then, you’ve said to yourself, “That sounds a little too much like another song. Let’s change it.”
No. I never had that issue before, and I don’t plan to ever have it again. We are entering the studio to make something that has never been made before. That’s the reason we show up.
You mentioned that you signed your first record deal when you were 16. Would you say you had a lot of early success?
I had a lot of success as a songwriter and producer. But my first album [2003’s A Beautiful World] didn’t come out until I was in my mid-20s. I’d had a record deal, on and off, for 10 years. It felt like a slow burn.
After the writing and producing success, were you surprised when your first album didn’t hit?
Until you release your art into the world, you can fantasize about its accomplishments. That fantasy is a lot of fun, but when the reality kicks in, it didn’t connect with people and you spent more money than you made. It’s super-saturation of the truth.
Did Jimmy Iovine, then the head of Interscope, believe in you even after A Beautiful World?
Oh, Jimmy believed in me from the beginning. Other people didn’t get me. They’d say, “He’s too this” or “He’s too that.” But Jimmy was like, “There’s something about this kid.” He stuck by me for six albums. That’s very rare.
You’re now on the third version of your next album. Is it finished?
There’s two more things I want to say, two more lyrics. I’ve had a surge of confidence recently, which has been nice. Songwriting is a train; sometimes it stops and magic hops on, and sometimes it just stops and stops and stops.
Why have you had that surge of confidence?
After losing my house, there’s nothing else left. [Laughs.] What else can I lose? And then The Masked Singer and the success of that show — I feel like my father because I’m in a primetime, tentpole TV show. [Imitates Alan Thicke.] “Hey, primetime!”
When you’re on album one, you have blind confidence. “Wait till the world gets a load of me!” [Laughs.] But when you’re on album eight, you really have to dig. You’ve got to bring a shovel all around the property and dig.
For plenty of musicians, going on a network TV show helps their careers; for others, it hurts. Why did you decide to do The Masked Singer?
Because it was funny. I saw Ryan Reynolds, who was on the Korean version of the show, wearing a unicorn costume and singing “Tomorrow” [from Annie]. The panel was laughing and shouting and making fun of each other. And once I heard we had Dr. Ken [comedian Ken Jeong], I was like, “This is going to be funny.” And we don’t have to judge! We don’t have to criticize people. It’s a great job.
What is it you do well, musically?
Music is in the DNA. My grandfather was a jazz trumpet player. His father was a jazz trumpet player. We come from traveling family bands, like The Sound of Music. A few generations back, there was a literal traveling band on my mom’s side. And on my father’s side, my great-grandmother was a classical pianist who played in movie theaters.
Rapper Talib Kweli recently tweeted, “Every space don’t belong to you white boy,” pointing out that you, Eminem and Justin Timberlake have all won BET Awards, while white people also dominate the Academy Awards and Grammys. Is that a fair criticism?
That’s not my place to speak on, to be honest. To be honored at all is beautiful, especially when maybe you’re not supposed to be honored in that world. These kinds of things bring up conversations that are important to have.
What would that conversation sound like?
I don’t think this is the right place for me to make a political stand on that. I think we should focus more on either my backstory or the new music.
But this is part of your backstory. You’re a white guy who loves black music and whose first fans were primarily black, and mostly black women.
Definitely. But it feels like the conversation itself pulls us backward. The theme of our country — or for much of our country — is, “Let’s build bridges, not walls.” I just want to connect with people.
Why haven’t you released a greatest-hits album?
I’d rather do a non-greatest hits — the best records that didn’t get airplay. “Sidestep,” “Teach U a Lesson,” “2 the Sky,” “Angels” — some of those.
Your last album, Paula, didn’t sell very well. Was it a good album?
It was an honest album and a necessary album. It was an homage to an incredible 20-year romance — the final chapter of a fairy-tale romance. I wanted it also for my son to hear, some day when he’s old enough to understand. It’s all in that album.
“Blurred Lines” was six years ago, and you have been through some big messes in public since. Do you have a lot riding on this new album?
The pressure is the same every time. The pressure is to make something that holds up when it comes out of the speaker 30 years from now.
In terms of this album, what would make you feel satisfaction?
If I actually finished the album! If it’s done, I will be satisfied. That’s the championship this time. Just finish the dang thing.
(Re) Introducing Robin
As he sets the stage for his first album in five years, Thicke has support from a new management company and a label eager for him to embrace his “soulful, heartfelt” roots.
Since the release of Robin Thicke’s 12-week Billboard Hot 100 No. 1, “Blurred Lines,” in 2013, the music industry has changed significantly: Gender politics and cultural appropriation have moved to the center of the conversation; streaming rules; and social media creates viral hits as much as eye-catching music videos do. To guide his return, Thicke is turning to his manager, Chris Knight, who recently moved with his client from Career Artist Management (CAM) to Roc Nation Management, and to the budding label and distribution team at his new label, EMPIRE.
Known for artists like D.R.A.M., Kendrick Lamar, XXXTentacion and Anderson .Paak, EMPIRE signed Thicke as part of its new focus on the pop market along with Iggy Azalea and Adam Lambert. “We’re trying to show that we’re a multidimensional company and a diverse roster that ventures beyond urban music,” says EMPIRE founder/CEO Ghazi. “Robin can play heavily in the urban mainstream space, and when he feels like it, he can cross over into the pop space. He gives us a very multidimensional approach for both radio and streaming services.”
Thicke will work directly with Ghazi, vp A&R Tina Davis, chief marketing strategist Morace Landy and marketing and product manager Kara H-G Coleman. Roc Nation arranged Thicke’s first EMPIRE meeting in 2018 at a time when — amid losing his home in the Woolsey Fire, settling the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit and expanding his family — the artist was looking for a fresh start. (He was previously signed to Interscope.)
“I think it’s the young energy [at EMPIRE] and wanting to go against the grain” that Thicke wanted, says Ghazi. A person familiar with Thicke’s management deal notes that the artist has always owned his publishing — “something that has been instilled [in him] by his father is owning your own rights” — and that his EMPIRE deal allows him to continue to own his masters: “Robin can have full creative control over what he wants to do.”
Knight brought Thicke with him to Roc Nation in March 2018 following the death of CAM founder Jordan Feldstein. Under a year later, Phil McIntyre, president of Roc Nation’s management arm, departed, but the person familiar with Thicke’s deal says that it hasn’t affected him, and that with Jay Brown at the helm of the company, “it’s full steam ahead.” His team hopes Thicke’s gig on The Masked Singer will remind audiences “he’s really just a fun guy at heart.” And they’re focused on embracing how marketing strategy has evolved since the arrival of Thicke’s last album, Paula, in 2014.
“Something that we haven’t done successfully yet is think about Robin’s approach to social media,” says the source. “He has done a good job of showing his family and what he does on a day-to-day basis on his socials. We need to start doing a better job of incorporating music into that as well” — for instance, re-engaging Thicke’s fans on YouTube.
While Ghazi won’t reveal specifics of Thicke’s new music, he teases an unexpected collaboration — possibly with another EMPIRE artist — and says he’s encouraging Thicke to focus on authenticity, not his next hit. “This album goes back to his roots — it’s really soulful, heartfelt,” he says. “If we catch hit records, we catch hit records. The main thing is that he sticks to who he is and makes records that make him feel good about himself.” — JEWEL WICKER