Determination and perseverance have been the hallmarks of Robin Thicke’s musical career. Then again, such fortitude was necessary in the world of R&B, where his presence was confronted with the (white) “elephant in the room.” The media’s labeling of Thicke’s repertoire as “blue-eyed soul” was no match for the sheer talent exposed on his sophomore album, The Evolution Of Robin Thicke. On February 24, 2007, Thicke made R&B history when he became the first white male artist to reach the number-one spot on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart since George Michael, who reached the summit in 1988 with “One More Try.” The following week, on March 3, 2007, “Lost Without U” simultaneously topped two additional charts as well: Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay and Adult R&B Airplay.
Far from a momentary blip, “Lost Without U” became one of 2007’s biggest R&B hits—spending eleven consecutive weeks at the top of the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Adult R&B Airplay charts, and ten consecutive weeks on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart.In the midst of Robin Thicke’s historical success, he was tapped to perform “Lost Without U” at the 2007 BET Awards, where he had been nominated as the year’s “Best Male R&B Artist” and received consideration as the “Viewer’s Choice” for his “Lost Without U” music video.
Unlike Justin Timberlake, who had been nominated several years earlier in 2003, Thicke’s reception was less controversial and more readily accepted.On September 9, 2008, Robin Thicke will release his third solo album, Something Else, which was produced entirely by himself and longtime collaborator Pro-Jay. Upon review of the album’s lead single, “Magic,” Robin Thicke managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on life, Lil’ Wayne and “blue-eyed soul.”
When you first appeared on the music scene (with “When I Get You Alone”), you had a different sense of fashion. What led you to your more refined sense of style?
I think we all go through periods where we decide who we are, inside and outside. I grew long hair because I said, “I’m going to grow my hair until I hear my album on the radio.” It started out as some kind of a dare to myself – like when a baseball team doesn’t shave in the playoffs. I started growing my hair and everybody liked it. After I put the album out and we started going on tour, the hair became such a nuisance. I just couldn’t control it, so I said, “I’m cutting this thing off.” I don’t really plan my life out like that. I just kind of do what I need to do to be happy.
Based off the length of your hair, at that particular point, it is quite obvious that your career wasn’t an “overnight success.”
Oh, yeah. I have been making music for 15 years. Everybody in the business says, “Hey, man, you never stop.” I have definitely paid my dues.
In the early part of your career, you had the chance to work with Brian McKnight. What impact did that experience have on your career?
I was the young Brian McKnight wannabe. As a matter of fact, all my friends used to call me “Brian McWhite.” I was so inspired by Brian McKnight’s first album that I reached out to him and tried to give my music to him. I was 14 years old at the time, but he got me in the studio and he got me a record deal. I had the opportunity to work with people like Brandy and Color Me Badd when I was 16 years old. After that, I was able to be very successful in songwriting.
A lot of your work deals with love and the struggles that men have with their emotions. How much of your art is a reflection of your own experiences?
Oh, every single word. That’s one thing: I don’t tell a story to get played on the radio. I just write songs about exactly what I’ve gone through.
Over the course of your career, several media outlets have branded your music as “blue-eyed soul.” How do you feel about this term, since it’s been used with Jon B, Michael McDonald and others?
I don’t hear that in my circle, but I consider myself to be a soulful person, so I consider my music to be soul. And I have blue eyes, so… [laughing] My music has a little of The Beatles and Bob Dylan, also. Even though it’s soulful music, it’s a little bit different than everybody else.
That being said, we both know that true soul music doesn’t really have a face, but you’re often associated with a style that’s typical of black folks. Do you ever find yourself encountering people or places where your integrity as an artist was questioned?
Yeah, that’s part of the business. When you walk out on stage, you’re already taking a chance. That’s why people are willing to applaud artists that are willing to take that chance.
In recent years, you have had multiple collaborations with Lil’ Wayne – even before he became “the best rapper alive.”
My wife says, “You called that 6 years ago,” because I told everybody, “This guy is going to be the next big thing. He is it.”
How did the two of you forge that relationship?
It was our music. He loved my first album. He ran across my manager in New York in the MTV building and said, “Are you the manager of Robin Thicke? You know I love his song, ‘Shooter,’ and I’d like to put it in my album.” He flipped it, and it became an underground hit.
Another interesting collaboration can be found on Ashanti’s The Declaration: “Things You Make Me Do.” The song is very sexy and the two of you sound great together. Did you approach Ashanti or did Ashanti approach you about doing that song?
I don’t really do collaborations like that, because I never really sing songs that I don’t produce. But sometimes, you just kind of drop all that and just let things flow. We saw each other in New York and we went to the studio and we just knocked it out right away. Even though it’s not how I normally operate, that’s what you got to do as an artist. You’ve got to check your ego out. Besides, Ashanti is such a sweet person. She’s just cool.
Speaking of ego, your sophomore album experienced an eight-month delay before hitting the shelves. What did you take from that experience?
I’ve learned so much. The worst thing that can possibly happen to you sometimes turns out to be the best, you know? In that period, I rewrote half of the album and put 9 songs on. It turned out to be a completely different album. I just have to follow the road that God’s put me on.
Is there a particular song that came “out of the blue” and really captures the essence of that particular period?
A lot of them: “Complicated,” “Can U Believe,” “2 The Sky,” “Angels.”
Of those, “2 The Sky” is my personal favorite. What was the writing process for that particular song?
The album kept getting pushed back and the band had a performance on the road with Keyshia Cole, so we just had to keep the ball rolling. One day while we were rehearsing, my keyboardist and musical director, Larry Cox, started to play this little riff. And in the next fifteen minutes or so, we wrote the whole song by just jamming. What you hear on the album is a six-minute block with another three-minute reprise. It was so much fun.
When touring, what do you find to be the most rewarding part of live performance?
Just the people, the interaction – you can actually bring them joy by singing your songs to them.
Is there a particular city that you love to perform in?
New York – if you make it there, you can make it anywhere. There are other great cities: DC, Detroit is huge, Atlanta. There’s so many wonderful cities, it’s hard to pick.
While on tour, I am sure that you have learned to expect the unexpected. What’s your most interesting stage story?
Oh man, I’ve fallen off stages. And I have busted my knees up – what hasn’t happened? I performed in a megastore in Baltimore. All the people were there – kids and everything – and the music kept cutting out every 10 seconds like the whole system was about to go out. So I ended up performing “Teach U A Lesson” with the audience snapping their fingers. We pretty much have seen it all, man.
That must have been comforting, at least, to know that the audience knew your unreleased material. [laughing] Your father, Alan Thicke, was born in Ontario. Do you get to perform in Canada often?
I perform in Canada from time to time. In 2007, I performed several dates up there with Beyoncé on the North American leg of her tour. I always love getting calls from my Canadian family and friends.
Do you find your reception in Canada different from that in America?
Soul music doesn’t go as far in Canada as it does in America, but they seem to be appreciative of the music.
How has your parents’ involvements in the entertainment industry affected your career?
My parents were always very leery about it because I was totally into it at 12 years old. I’m like, “I’m going to do it anyway no matter what anybody says.” At first they were like, “Be careful. We want you to go through college.” So, what I learned from them was how not to burn bridges and to really care about your craft, to keep working on your craft.
Well, the Evolution of Robin Thicke was very clear in showcasing the depth and progression of your musical artistry. Most artists find it difficult to evolve, however, especially when their fans want them to stay in the same box. With your latest album, Something Else, what challenges did face while experimenting with new concepts and ideas?
It’s just like any relationship – you grow and you change something here and there. Maybe sometimes you change too much. But it’s my job to live my life, to try to connect with people.