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Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ Is the Album Justin Timberlake Was Too Famous to Make

Thickefreakness: Robin Thicke at the BET Awards / Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: July 30, 2013
Label: Star Trak/ Interscope

This is the album that Justin Timberlake is too famous to make in 2013, its musical scope and track lengths modest, its sexual appetite and commercial ambition immodest, its star willing to offer up whatever cheesy line, vocal acrobatic, pop hook or funk groove or electro flourish that it takes to keep you listening. On The 20/20 Experience, JT sought to mature from puppy-doggish persistence to manly assurance while preserving his fascinating ability to try too hard yet never come on too strong. Whereas Robin Thicke, a slow-jam man just now reaching a broader audience, shamelessly parades his versatility as a singer and a lover. He’s crass and corny and comic, and yours for the night if you’ll have him.

Over the past decade, as pop has grown increasingly club-bound, Thicke’s been TCB at home, luxuriating on the R&B charts, soundtracking intimate bedroom interactions for the satisfaction of a fanbase that’s largely black, largely female, and largely ignored by outsiders. In this arena, where nuances of vocal timbre matter more than state-of-the-art beat construction, exquisitely sweet nothings like “Lost Without You” and “Sex Therapy” lent the therapeutic cliché that good sex is all about communication a ring of sensual truth.

But this March, a very different Robin Thicke came swaggering dick-first into the club. With some help from an entertaining (if all-too-coyly “sexy-or-sexist?”) video, “Blurred Lines” has topped the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks (and counting). Just as he’d boosted Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose” for Nelly’s “Hot in Herrre” more than a decade ago, Pharrell revamped Mavin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up Pt. 1″ for a throwback too buoyant to be truly retro. And a come-on too ingratiating to be truly offensive, right?

Well… yes. “Blurred Lines” (like so many great songs before it) no doubt has and no doubt will continue to spark inexcusable and intrusive behavior from heterosexual men, because heterosexual men are horrible creatures who club owners should only allow to enter their establishments one at a time, in the same way suspicious convenience stores limit teens’ access after school. And among the lines that Thicke’s inescapable megahit blurs is the one between convincing someone you’re worth bedding and overcoming her resistance to your advances. Still, on its own terms, “Blurred Lines” is a consensual two-way flirtation, a game both players get to win, with Thicke desperately launching goofball compliments at a woman who paws at him and prances away.

Of course, with all pop seductions, whether you deem the attention welcome or worthy of a drink in the face depends on how attractive you find the performance. “Blurred Lines” is also a singer’s showcase, driven by the contrast between Thicke’s spiraling falsetto and his assured, full-voiced mid-register, employing virtuosity for playful effect. This white guy knows his old-school classics cold, and the past echoes through Blurred Lines the album — here’s Phillip Bailey’s step-by-step upward waft on “Feel Good,” there’s Aaron Hall’s manly groan giving way to George Clinton’s druggy sidle on “Go Stupid 4 U” — without ever sounding imitative or studied. It’s a welcome alternative to the pinched, monochromatic yearning that pop fans are too often forced to settle for. Alternate album title: I Can Fuck You Better than Adam Levine.

Thicke can come off like a guy who doesn’t get out much, someone who knows more what to whisper in your ear by candlelight than what to shout out on a thumping dance floor. But he’s so smartly self-aware of his limitations as a PUA that he exaggerates and sings the hell out of them. On “Give It to You,” as a terrifying bass buzz suggests that some mutant Syfy mosquito has escaped Dr. Luke’s lab, Thicke bluntly offers up “a big dick for you” and drops a ridiculously awestruck “angel” into its falsetto chorus. Maybe his blurted need “to shop for your underwear” is what stands out on the Timbaland jam “Take It Easy on Me,” but the more revealing line is “Baby, I ain’t never been the type / To dance, but tonight might be the night.” And if he overuses “thing” for both his-and-hers genitalia, do you really prefer Justin euphemizing about his blueberry lollipop and Jessica Biel’s wad of strawberry bubblegum?

Still, life-long Thicke fans might prefer the Prince-like ballad “For the Rest of My Life,” about a cocky kid who wins over his teenage dream by crooning a Jodeci joint, loses her through typical adolescent jerkiness, and crawls back a wiser man for an undeserved second chance. An autobiographical glance back at the singer’s relationship with Paula Patton, his childhood sweetheart and wife of eight years, it suggests an unfolding future of licks and nibbles and familiar yet unexpected sensations more ecstatic than any one-night-stand can promise. As a follow-up single to “Blurred Lines,” though, it fizzled. Apparently some people would rather believe that true love should be like staring at your reflection in a mirror.