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Thicke reflects on race and ‘Something Else’

Race never seems to be far from the mind of Thicke, who was heralded for furthering the next generation of blue-eyed soul after the platinum success of his second album, “The Evolution of Robin Thicke.”
/ Source: Billboard

It’s an unusually hot and humid summer night in Hollywood. A murmuring line of fans — mostly women — snakes around the Sunset Boulevard perimeter of the House of Blues. They’re waiting for one thing and one thing only: Robin Thicke.

Inside the crowded venue, women begin yelling as Thicke’s band troops onstage to some James Brown funk and the announcer promises “a true soul experience.” Then the whole room seems to undulate as Thicke bounds onstage and launches into his new ’70s soul-grooved track “Magic.”

That afternoon, in an upstairs dressing room, Thicke mused about the audiences that have been queuing up as he sets the stage for the Sept. 30 release of his third album, “Something Else.”

“What’s great about the bigger cities are the numbers of interracial couples who come,” he said. (The singer-songwriter, who is white, is married to actress Paula Patton, who is black.) Thicke added, “I’m seeing a cross between the girls who want to come out and have fun and the couples who come to enjoy a loving environment.”

Race never seems to be far from the mind of Thicke, who was heralded for furthering the next generation of blue-eyed soul after the platinum success of his second album, “The Evolution of Robin Thicke.”

He described “Something Else” as a cross between “classic Philly, Motown and ’70s black disco meets the creativity of the Beatles and Bob Dylan. It just felt to me that a lot of stuff out there sounds the same. It’s a time for change, for something else.”

The new album isn’t the only thing on Thicke’s plate. He has written the theme song for the movie “Push,” a drama directed by Lee Daniels (who produced “Monster’s Ball” and “The Woodsman”). Co-starring Patton as a teacher, the film takes place in ’80s Harlem amid the crack epidemic. Thicke is also penning a screenplay (“a spy thriller love thing like ‘The Bourne Supremacy”’) and writing a book of poetry.

He’ll tour with Mary J. Blige in September and October. And his latest Lil Wayne collaboration, “Tie My Hands,” will appear on “Something Else” (it’s also on Wayne’s “Tha Carter III”) and will be featured in the upcoming Forest Whitaker film “Hurricane Season.”

The welcome mat being rolled out now for Thicke is a far cry from the lukewarm reception he encountered in 2003 for his Nu America/Interscope album “A Beautiful World.” Initially titled “Cherry Blue Skies,” the R&B-vibed set gained some notice by way of lead single “When I Get You Alone,” which sampled Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven.” But many inside and outside the industry didn’t know what to make of the unshaven, long-haired artist going only by his last name. “I was just rebelling,” Thicke recalls, “trying to do something different. I actually challenged myself, saying, ‘I won’t cut my hair until I hear my song on the radio.”’

Thicke heard plenty of his work on the radio — but it was for other artists he’d penned songs for, like Christina Aguilera and Usher. (He won a Grammy Award for his collaboration on the latter’s 2004 album “Confessions.”) But the son of singer Gloria Loring and actor Alan Thicke (“Growing Pains”) wouldn’t hear his own singles on the radio until after he’d signed to the Neptunes’ Interscope-distributed Star Trak label.

Thicke sat down with Billboard to discuss his career and how the “blue-eyed soul” label has come to chafe.

Billboard: What was your frame of mind while recording “Something Else?”

Robin Thicke: I don’t walk in with a concept. I just write songs, and by the time I get to the end, I say, “OK, this is what the songs seem to be talking about as a whole opposed to individual moments.”

These new songs are talking about a time for change and hope; to get away from all the sadness, loneliness and depression that I used to live in. This album expresses the celebration I’m going through and the healing I want to give to people. It’s also about what’s going on in the world with politics and race. The closer Barack Obama gets to the White House, it’s all about race now. They’re all trying to make it seem like he is playing the race card when he’s just an American running for president. How my wife and I still aren’t able to walk in Mississippi without people looking at us like we’re crazy. The laws may have changed, but the whispering hasn’t.

Billboard: What is the major difference between your first two albums?

Thicke: “World” was about expression and the limitless possibilities of music. I just tried to do anything and everything on it. When I go back and listen to it now, it’s a bit of a showoff album. It’s a lot of dribbling through the legs and behind-the-back passes.

The second album (“The Evolution of Robin Thicke”) is about a guy who’s been stripped of everything. He doesn’t have any money and is about to lose his house. His wife is off becoming a movie star and everyone else is pretty much leaving him. All the cool friends I’d had stopped inviting me to parties. I was all alone at home writing songs on my piano about what I was feeling. Thus came “Complicated,” “Can U Believe,” “I Need Love,” “2 the Sky” and “Angels.” All these songs were about brokenhearted loneliness and hopelessness; trying to still believe in myself.

Billboard: Did you consider quitting music altogether?

Thicke: No, because music is my life. There were a couple of thoughts about maybe quitting on life altogether. I didn’t have the knife on my arm, but emotionally I thought, “God, what am I here for? You tell me that I’m supposed to make music. I feel this and know I’m supposed to, but you won’t give it to me.”

However, that defeat turns out to be the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I was a very cocky young kid. Having been knocked down and pushed to the ground made me appreciate life, my friends and all the people who help me have a hit. Gratitude and appreciation are some of the greatest gifts of life, and that’s what I’ve come to live in.

Billboard: Were your parents’ connections with the entertainment industry a help or a hindrance?

Thicke: It never helped. It’s always been a hindrance, still to this day.

People can’t see me without seeing them, and it affects the way people see me. On late-night talk shows I’ve heard remarks like, “Isn’t his dad kind of straight and corny?” and “How can he be cool when his dad was on a TV show that wouldn’t be cool by any standards?”

When you listen to Jay-Z’s music, you don’t see his mother and father standing there. You don’t even think of his mother and father. But if you knew all of Jay-Z’s family, you might think of him differently. With me, people still visualize my dad and that affects the origin of the music.

Billboard: Do you buy into the “blue-eyed soul” tag you’ve been given?

Thicke: It’s a joke. It’s like saying I can’t do rock ’n’ roll. As musicians, we’re dying for those things to go away. We’re just hoping we can make the music that we want to and not be pigeonholed by our skin color. Yet it affects me all the time.

Billboard: What is it like trying to break the color line from the other side?

Thicke: When I did a recent interview with Vibe magazine I asked, “Why can’t I get the cover? This is a magazine I love. If there’s one magazine that I’d want to be on the cover of, it’s Vibe.” Their response was they don’t have white artists on the cover; that the only white artist they’ve had on the cover was Eminem. I guess if that’s what it is, it is what it is. And I respect that because I live in a house with a black woman.

I won’t use the word “racism.” I will say it’s a tough — but rewarding — fight. I look at Mary J. Blige, somebody who has had only a few pop hits and yet has changed culture, generated new sounds and inspired leagues of artists. She’s now a worldwide phenomenon. And it’s because of what she stood for; she never gave up. She kept making great music, pouring her heart out to people.

You can’t always expect people to be as color-blind or open-minded as you want. What you can do is keep giving your heart and soul, like Bob Marley did. His music became so overwhelmingly loving; it was a relentless love in a sense. Keep beating them down with love and they can’t stop you.