We live in weird chart times. Just a few years ago the No. 1 songs in the country corresponded pretty well with the biggest artists — Britney Spears, Rihanna, the Black Eyed Peas, folks your parents could name — but now they’ve gotten decidedly weirder. Last year’s winners: a Canadian Idol contestant, some dudes from The Format and an art-rock guy from New Zealand. This year: a previously unheard-of white rapper named Macklemore, a previously very unheard-of meme producer named Baauer, and maybe the most surprising of all: Robin Thicke. Robin Thicke, whose mainstay was urban radio in a year where — by design — there’s less crossover with top 40 than ever. Robin Thicke, a throwback soul man after years of big shiny pop songs in the mainstream and out. Robin Thicke, who’d been shrugged off as interchangeable with Justin Timberlake just as Timberlake staged his major comeback.
Maybe it’s not so surprising after all. Thicke, simply put, was in the right place at the right time. He’s a traditional R&B guy who released a traditional Martin Gaye homage just as traditional R&B’s gotten a larger platform. The Weeknd got a radio hit (with Wiz Khalifa, but only barely), Frank Ocean is a bona fide star, Miguel’s star is on the rise, and whether you think these guys represent R&B well or horribly, they helped give the genre a certain cachet that almost certainly helped Thicke’s comeback. (Although it’s hilarious to think what Blurred Lines would sound like if his crossover came courtesy of Leighton Meester, which in 2009 seemed as likely as anything else.) Thicke’s other big boost came from colleague Pharrell Williams, who’s had a kickass year even by Neptunes standards. It didn’t come out of nowhere — he quietly started his comeback in 2012, when almost no one noticed. But now it’s impossible not to notice, as he’s behind the two biggest songs of the summer: Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” and even bigger counterpart “Blurred Lines.”
This is where you likely expect me to talk about how “Blurred Lines” has a nudie video or how its lyrics are misogynistic. There’s really not much to say. The former’s the same old banned-video ploy that nevertheless still works — it got Thicke a major radio campaign out of nowhere — because sex sells, and “sex” to advertisers means “naked chicks.” (The SFW version was a big sponsored campaign, after all.) The latter’s just overstated, often by people uneasy with the R&B loverman schtick — or with flirting with frisson. And the hand-waving freakoutery’s only festered more, and gotten less relevant, with how long “Blurred Lines” has stuck around the charts, like a guy who refuses to leave your side. If it’s outrage you want, that’s better directed toward Justin Timberlake’s video for “Tunnel Vision,” which takes “Blurred Lines” director Diane Martel’s semi-feminist vision and reduces it to a Playboy parade — or really toward just about anything else.
But back to “Tunnel Vision.” It’s no wonder Timberlake is ripping Thicke off; “Blurred Lines” arguably ripped Timberlake off. When it first came out, more than one person called it a ragtag improvement over the mega-luxe 20/20 Experience. Before that, Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie” arguably ripped Thicke off. Respective producers Pharrell and Timbaland peaked around the same time, too, and given that they were the two big names in weird pop beats they also got accused of mutual ripoffs. It’s one big feedback loop, and it’s only getting loopier, to the point where Thicke can release a second single called “Give It 2 U” with more than a partial resemblance to Timbaland and Timberlake’s “Give It To Me” — the pronouns switch — not to mention Jordan Knight’s “Give It To You,” which Thicke wrote! (To be fair, there are only so many ways to talk about giving it to people.) It’s not a Team Thicke / Team Timberlake situation, exactly — Timbaland shows up, sounding exactly like himself, on Blurred Lines, and Thicke’s only had gracious if practiced words for his counterpart: “there’s room for everybody’s greatness to be realised and appreciated.” (Though the other half of his quote — a collaboration would be “just too much whiteness in one video” — should be noted, given that the only people who’ve managed to go No. 1 with R&B this year are entrenched white dudes.)
All this makes Blurred Lines, the album, a rather odd duck. The singles, it turns out, are thoroughly unrepresentative. “Take It Easy on Me” (not a single yet, but almost certainly a candidate) is a standard Timbaland track: sex as menace, grumblings everywhere, all the more danceable for it. The two Dr. Luke and will.i.am collaborations, “Give It 2 U” and “Feel Good,” are come-ons as blunt as you’d expect from the guy whose breakout video bragged about his package and throb with the club synths you’d expect from a guy with the No. 1 single on pop radio. The rest of the album is decidedly less futuristic. It’ll probably draw a few misguided comparisons with “Get Lucky” (even though Pharrell’s only credited on “Blurred Lines”), but a better comparison might be R. Kelly’s Write Me Back: a resolutely old-fashioned album beginning with “Everybody get up now!” and ending with lush-yet-humble soul ballad “The Good Life.”
This will probably puzzle people looking for more “Blurred Lines” (rather than more Marvin), but there are many charms to be had for the rest. “Ain’t No Hat 4 That” — a true family affair, written by Thicke’s father and featuring a cameo by his son — is a kiss-off that’s all the more cutting for being so laid-back, and hilarious if you imagine it directed not at some gold-digger but at the seemingly endless fedora-clad R&B carpetbaggers. “Ooh La La,” gleeful with glissando and stratospheric falsetto, is exactly the song “Suit & Tie” wanted to be, if the rap verse got off to “Top of the World.” And slyly nostalgic love song “4 the Rest of My Life” (“One night upon the phone you said you were at home alone / I wasn’t even old enough to drive… good thing I stole my daddy’s car”) earns every one of its five minutes in a year when seemingly every artist, Daft Punk to Jay Z to, yes, Timberlake, is writing songs long as a form of musical conspicuous consumption. Will any of this cross over like “Blurred Lines”? No, but blame the compartmentalized music business. Will it make Thicke a star? Right now, that line isn’t blurry at all.