‘The industry doesn’t determine the art, art determines the industry’
Words: Marsha Gosho Oakes
It’s the day before he performs at London’s prestigious Jazz Café, and Robin Thicke is cooped up in a plush hotel in West London doing press interviews on this sunny April afternoon. The charismatic singer relaxes on the sofa; a suave and polished contrast to his former grungy self (check out the music video for his old debut single ‘When I Get You Alone’ for evidence). His 2003 debut album ‘A Beautiful World’ might have flown straight past you unnoticed, and you may vaguely remember him from the R&B remix of Will Smith’s 2005 hit ‘Switch’. Remember ‘Can You Handle It’ on Usher’s last album? Robin Thicke wrote and produced that – along with tracks for Christina Aguilera, Mya, Brandy and Brian McKnight. Now, with ‘The Evolution of Robin Thicke’, Thicke is finally getting some of the attention this talented songwriter deserves. He has toured with India.Arie and John Legend, and his Billboard number one album features collaborations with Pharrell, Lil’ Wayne and Faith Evans, whilst his single ‘Lost Without You’ makes Thicke the first white male to top the US R&B singles chart since George Michael. His white skin and a penchant for singing falsetto has provoked widespread comparisons to pop singer Justin Timberlake – a comparison that Robin strongly disagrees with. But we’ll come to that…
His father is Canadian entertainer Alan Thicke, perhaps best known for acting the lead role in US sitcom ‘Growing Pains’. Following in his fathers footsteps in his early years, Robin appeared in several episodes of ‘The Wonder Years’ among other occasional acting appearances. He then realised music was his destiny, so he began learning the piano at the age of twelve, and began song-writing professionally from the age of sixteen. “My mum listened to soul music in the house like Aretha and Stevie, my dad listened to Rock n Roll, Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles, and I listened to hip hop like NWA. So somewhere I fell into the middle of all that…”, he chuckles. His writing and production collaborations include Jordan Knight, Mya, Brian McKnight, Christina Aguilera, Brandy, Usher and Michael Jackson. “I wrote for Brian McKnight and Brandy when I was sixteen, and I wrote on Usher’s Confessions album – so those were two very different periods”, Thicke explains. “For Brandy I wrote a song called ‘Love Is On My Side’ and for Brian McKnight I wrote a song called ‘Your love Is Ooh’. And for Usher I wrote and produced a song called ‘Can You Handle It’ and a song called ‘Dot Com’.” It’s a wonder that it’s taken so long for him to gain recognition.
The song-writing process is humble and sometimes profound, he reveals. “I don’t really like to take pride in [my song-writing], because I don’t think pride is a good thing to take in your art. Pride is a weakness; at least what I’ve been taught pride is – it’s an egotistical thing to be proud of something, you should just reveal, you should share at least. It’s hard to be proud of a song you’ve writing because when you’re writing it you’re just trying to open up and share and open up your heart. Normally, on my first couple of lines, like… I start crying, because I know that there’s a real something special happening. My best songs I usually write them in about 10 minutes and right when I get the first line I get all teared up because I know something special is happening. So songs like ‘Can U Believe’, ‘To The Sky’ and ‘Angels’, I had those emotions over.”
Citing his favourite artists and deliberate influences as the diverse and legendary “Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, Bob Marley and Michael Jackson”, one can hear the frustration in Robin’s voice as he adamantly tells everyone that he gets more comparisons to Marvin Gaye than Justin Timberlake. In one internet interview with Robin, his response to one journalist was “Justin and I have nothing in common, I have more in common with Lil’ Wayne than I do with Justin Timberlake”. On being asked about this Robin responds, “I said that? I agree, I definitely agree with that! Justin has been a star since he was 15 or something or even younger, if you include the Disney stuff, I’ve been working for 14 years and I just had my first hit. I was a writer and a producer first and I’ve been with a black woman for over 10 years so that’s the biggest difference”, smiling widely. The black woman he refers to is actress Paula Patton, who is pictured on the cover of his debut 2003 album ‘A Beautiful World’, but is better known to us all as Denzel Washington’s stunning co-star in time-travelling cinema hit Déjà Vu, in which she played the dead-and-alive character Claire Kuchever. The couple married in 2005. Whilst the soul is deeply evident in Robin Thicke’s music, I had to ask whether he agrees that there are any vocal similarities at all between himself and Justin. “I don’t think we have any…” he insists. “His music sounds futuristic, and mine sounds like old soul music. People say ‘well you guys both sing in falsetto’ but I only sing in falsetto for about half of the album and there’s about a hundred falsetto singers out there that nobody wants to compare me to. I’m sure if I was black nobody would compare us.” Would he ever work with Justin? “He would be dancing and I would be singing, I don’t think it would make much sense.” Meow – that’s that, then!
Looking at the impact of his race on his career in a wider sense than a pop comparison, Robin tells us that being white “always is affecting my career. I mean the world is racist and the world is stereotyped, and you know everybody has a tendency to go with what they see rather than what they feel. I’ll forever be seen as the ‘soulful white guy’ and I don’t mind that, just as Ray Charles will forever be seen as the soulful black blind guy. We all have our labels depending on who we are visually, but when I listen to Ray Charles’ CD, I don’t see anything except what I feel from his music, and that’s what I’d like people to do – open their hearts, and just be touched by the music. But you’ve got to make great music for that to happen, for you to be able to break down visual barriers.”
Speaking of great music, Robin seems to have reserved his most soulful and unique songs for himself – thorough soul production and song-writing is prominent in both of his albums, creating what he describes as “soulful music from the hip hop generation with revealing, vulnerable words”. With Lil’ Wayne rapping on several tracks on of ‘The Evolution Of…’ and Pharrell’s input on the album’s first single ‘Wanna Luv U Girl’, how else has hip hop influenced his music? “Hip hop influences everything I do,” he responds, “from the way I dress, the way I talk, the way I dance, the music that I make, the people that I hang out with. Hip hop is the most original form of art in the world right now and I think hip hop inspires everybody, whether they admit it or not.” With widespread criticism of the generic nature of today’s commercial hip hop, in addition to the constant social debates, does Robin still feel today that it’s one of the most original art forms? “Absolutely. People have a tendency to belittle hip hop that have been fans of it for 20 years, but the people who are 12, 13 and 14 – they don’t care about us older people saying that hip hop is dead, they’re like ‘fuck you, hip hop is the shit!’”, he says laughing. “It’s hard to compare MIMS to A Tribe Called Quest but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have their appeal.”
So is the current state of hip hop, perhaps equally celebrated and critiqued, down to the demands of the industry or the output of the artists? “The industry is a reflection of the art that’s being made”, Thicke decides. “For me, I’m number one on the adult urban AC chart for twelve weeks in a row – anybody who woulda thought a white guy singing in today’s market would be able to do that on an urban AC chart… you know, I mean nobody would assume that and if they did they would think ‘well, it won’t be a big hit’. We set the record for most spins ever in a week on that format. People go where they love something, the industry doesn’t determine the art, the art determines the industry.” But doesn’t the industry choose which art it puts money to and promotes to the masses? “I do agree with you but that’s only ‘good’ art. The best is undeniable and everybody knows it as soon as they hear it. The best of the best. When I was very young, I used to get upset because Jimmy Jam and some of the top guys in the business they would tell me, when I go ‘what do I need to do??’, they would go: ‘hey man, the best of the best wins’. There’s no other way to put it.
“When you’ve got something people need, they need it. So when I make music, instead of making something that I like or something that I think people might want, I try to make something that people need, that I need, that I can’t live without. And if I can make music that people can’t live without, sooner or later they won’t be able to live without it.”
The platinum album, ‘The Evolution of Robin Thicke’ is out now on Star Trak/Interscope.