Britain is stealing a lot of the white-soul thunder these days, with acts such as Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone and James Hunter offering albums produced with gravelly, powerful vocals and heavy tinges of Motown. But Stateside, one pale, unlikely guy is racking up in record sales what he may have lacked in soul cred or buzz.
Robin Thicke is the son of Alan Thicke, best known as the dad on TV's Growing Pains. But Robin looks less like his father and more like a pretty Edward Norton, or an actor on one of the Desire shows from MyNetworkTV. In other words, he looks about as soulful as polka. (Why is there always carefully sculpted facial hair involved when white guys go R&B? Has someone decided that clean-shaven says "wannabe cracker?")
Thicke's The Evolution of Robin Thicke has quietly ascended the charts: at last check, it was no. 6 on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop list, and it's been hovering in the top 10 for weeks, surely riding on the airplay of "Lost Without U," his Spanish-guitar-tinged single. Note the substitution of the letter for the word. A la Prince, the songs on Thicke's album are all 2 and U instead of "to" and "you."
You might also catch tinges of Prince in Thicke's delicately wrought vocals, but to me his falsetto owes more to Michael Jackson than to the Purple One. However, unlike these two artists -- or Justin Timberlake, for that matter -- Thicke doesn't spend too much time trying to balance his sweet falsetto with any bad-ass posturing. Even songs that sound like they might be dark, such as "Cocaine," somehow fail utterly to carry a trace of doom.
Despite the fact that The Evolution of Robin Thicke is, in many ways, filled with puppy-dog-eyed "I love you girl" cliches, I am rooting for Thicke. I'm rooting for him because he's not cool. He's wearing his influences on his sleeve, and he's wearing them well. He gets bluesy, he gets blue, and he's serving up straight R&B ballads, no chaser. His effort is clear, and so is his talent.
The sincerity and soul in Thicke's style make it all the more lamentable that some of his songs verge on lyrical ridiculousness. "Complicated," for example, starts out with a strong piano and catchy verse, only to deliver this chorus: "There's no way, there's no way, there's no way/I can get back that girl/Cause I'm too complicated/And she's not complicated/But I'm too complicated." Not complicated enough, babes. But it's OK. I'm looking forward to hearing the next stage of Thicke's evolution.