Clutching a gold microphone as shiny as his gold watch, Robin Thicke sauntered into a recording studio in Playa Vista on a recent afternoon like he owned the place.
The R&B singer known for his romantic ballads was taping a brief live performance for YouTube, and as he passed through the audience on his way to a small stage, he paused to put his arm around one female fan, who seemed as though she might crumple under the weight of his attention.
Then Thicke shimmied on, taking his place in front of his band as it vamped on the funk riff from his hit “Blurred Lines,” in which he poses one of this summer’s great rhetorical questions: “What rhymes with ‘Hug me’?”
Afterward, he stood outside the studio smoking a cigarette, beads of sweat glistening on his forehead. “That was fun,” he said.
It was unlikely too. Slick with new-media panache, Thicke’s performance was one you might expect from a buzzed-about rookie running on borrowed bravado. At 36, though, this show-business veteran is well past his hot-shot years, and “Blurred Lines” is far from his first crack at the charts.
Nonetheless, the song’s runaway success could make a young pop idol jealous. A jumpy disco jam featuring Pharrell Williams and rapper T.I., it just spent a seventh week at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, while the song’s willfully provocative music video has been viewed online well over 100 million times.
Last month, Thicke’s performance of “Blurred Lines” was a widely agreed-upon highlight of the BET Awards. And the tune has even earned its own parody from Jimmy Kimmel, another part of an enviable set-up for the singer’s sixth studio album, also titled “Blurred Lines” and due in stores Tuesday.
“It’s just one of those songs that loosens people up,” said Williams, who produced and co-wrote “Blurred Lines.” “With everybody so anxious about everything going on in the world, people need something to help them be happy again.”
“Blurred Lines” isn’t the only breezy throwback track making a big impact this year. Emmanuel Coquia, music director at the L.A. hip-hop radio station Power 106, compared the song to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” (which also features Williams), Bruno Mars’ “Treasure” and Justin Timberlake’s “Take Back the Night”; all exude a sense of fatigue with the serrated synths and sledgehammer beats favored by Lady Gaga and her ilk. “That retro sound is really hot right now,” Coquia said.
Yet for Thicke, “Blurred Lines” is more singular: the biggest pop hit, by far, in a long career previously confined to R&B crowds.
“It used to be kind of a centered audience that knew me,” he said at a restaurant near his home in West Hollywood a few weeks after the YouTube taping. “But now it’s young girls, it’s old people, it’s people from India and Germany. It’s a whole other level, which is very exciting, I can’t deny it.” As if on cue, several twentysomething women from a nearby table approached Thicke and asked, between excited giggles, whether he’d mind posing for a photograph.
“I look at it like an actor,” he continued after returning to his seat. “You could be a great actor and be in good films for 10 or 20 years. But then you’re Jeff Bridges and you get ‘Crazy Heart,’ and all of a sudden everyone says, ‘This guy’s good — we like this guy!’”
He comes by the acting metaphor honestly. The son of “Growing Pains” star Alan Thicke and singer-actress Gloria Loring, Robin Thicke grew up surrounded by powerful Hollywood types, which is one reason expectations ran high for his ambitious, eclectic 2003 debut, “A Beautiful World.” (Another reason was the songwriting work he’d already done by that point for stars such as Brandy, Christina Aguilera and Jordan Knight of New Kids on the Block.)
But “A Beautiful World” tanked, leading Thicke to reinvent himself as a grown-up balladeer. The approach yielded a string of modest hits — including “Lost Without U,” a bossa nova-style love song he wrote for his wife, actress Paula Patton — and earned him a reputation among rappers such as Rick Ross and Lil Wayne, who enlisted Thicke to soften hip-hop tracks with his breathy lover-man vocals. Eventually, though, that softness became a liability: “‘Lost Without U’ played on the Wave,” he said with a laugh, referring to the easy-listening L.A. radio station. “Here I am thinking I’m some kind of edgy artist, and now I’m playing on elevators.”
For his new album, Thicke solicited help not just from Williams (who’d worked with Thicke previously) but also from other Top 40 rainmakers such as Timbaland, Dr. Luke and will.i.am. “I’d be lying to myself if, going into this record, I said I didn’t want to have a hit,” Thicke acknowledged. But if those producers’ trademarks are readily apparent in sleek, club-friendly tracks such as “Take It Easy on Me” and the grinding “Give It 2 U” (with a guest rap by Kendrick Lamar), the album as a whole actually feels more defined by Thicke’s personality — his idiosyncratic mix of sexy assurance and brainy quirk — than anything since his debut.
In one lightweight disco-soul tune, “Ain’t No Hat 4 That,” he tosses off the words “preposterous” and “obstreperous,” an improbable rhyme he credits to his father. “My dad, he’ll do that sometimes,” Robin Thicke said, slipping into a pitch-perfect impression of Alan Thicke. “‘If you’re doing candy references, how about ‘marzipan’?”
Jimmy Iovine, the Interscope Records chairman who’s been working with Thicke since the latter’s days as a songwriter, said the song “Blurred Lines” demonstrates that Thicke has “finally cracked the code” for acceptance on the radio. “But that doesn’t mean he cracked the code on being great,” Iovine added. “Robin was always great.”
Despite (or perhaps because of) the song’s omnipresence — even hipster rock acts such as Vampire Weekend and Queens of the Stone Age have covered it — “Blurred Lines” has its detractors, some of whom have taken issue with the music video, in which Thicke, Williams and T.I., all fully clothed, dance with a number of topless models. (The uncensored version of the video was banned for a spell by YouTube, which Thicke’s manager, Jordan Feldstein, said “was the best thing that could’ve happened to us.”)
Critics have said that the song and video — in which Thicke sings, “I know you want it” — are degrading and that they shore up offensive notions about women who say “no” but supposedly mean “yes.”
Thicke said the criticism struck him as an attempt by certain writers to “get people to come onto their blogs.” But he also seemed genuinely troubled by the idea that his song could be interpreted that way. “I’m making her a full-blown equal,” he said of the lyrics to “Blurred Lines”: “‘You’re an animal, I’m an animal.’” And in an interview with “Access Hollywood” after the YouTube shoot, he was quick to point out that Patton loves the video and that it was directed by a woman, Diane Martel.
Controversy aside, Thicke knows the attention paid “Blurred Lines” has extended his stay in the music business at a moment when that stay might otherwise have been drawing to a close.
“I want to get right back to making another record and use [the hit song] as a platform to prove this wasn’t a fluke,” he said. Not that the singer, who’s set to tour the U.S. next spring, has figured out how to do that, exactly. “There’s no math to a great record — it just happens,” he said. “If we knew the math, we’d do it every time.”