Monday, July 29, 2013

album review: 'blurred lines' by robin thicke

For those of you who haven't been following the charts this year, let me provide a bit of commentary discussing the bizarre trends sprouting up on the Billboard Hot 100. While the year started slow (with the early months dominated by either the Harlem Shake, 'Thrift Shop', or a series of piano-driven ballads), a new trend began to coalesce as the summer began, a trend spurred by the release of a critically acclaimed album courtesy of one of the best electronica groups in the country, an album I may have already reviewed.

The song was 'Get Lucky', the band was Daft Punk, the album was Random Accessed Memories, and the music was a blend of funk and disco, two genres that many considered dead at the end of the 70s. And yet here they were, making a comeback unlike anything we'd seen. And while I had been saying the 70s had been making a comeback since earlier this year, it was nice to see the charts reflect some of that. And really, the stylistic flourishes that represented that decade were popping up all over the chart, from the chanting and 'righteous cause' bombast from Macklemore to the slick R&B touches with Justin Timberlake. Hell, Snoop Lion dropped an album that was basically an attempt at resurrecting politically-charged reggae! And with the exception of 'When I Was Your Man', both of Bruno Mars' charting singles were basically 70s throwbacks and they were easily on par with the best of his material!

But really, the song that had to rise to the top was 'Get Lucky'. Not only was it a scintillating and enthralling blend of disco and funk modernized, it had a real playful elegance in the lyrics that vaulted it above the average disco track. In my mind, it still is in hot contention for my list of the best songs of the year, and it might just rise to the top.

Unfortunately, it's been blocked from the #1 slot by another pseudo disco track that apparently jumped out of nowhere, also starring Pharrell, a song that very quickly drew some controversy for some rather overtly sexual lyrics. And it's this song - the title track from the album we're going to talk about today - that has blocked Daft Punk for over five weeks, and it's courtesy of an artist who I thought went out of business a good six years ago.

So let's talk about this artist, shall we? Robin Thicke is a guy you're all forgiven for forgetting, because outside of one single Glee did infinitely better, he honestly hasn't done much that I immediately remembered. Granted, I give him a bit more credit going back through his discography, but I've never been able to like his music all that much, and after listening through his albums, I think I know why. 

For starters, unlike many R&B crooners, Robin Thicke does have a fair amount of vocal personality, and his falsetto range is incredibly impressive (see, Julian Casablancas, this is how you do it). And I'll give him this, when he wants to make a song that sounds incredibly sexual, he has the slick sophistication and class to make it work. However, there's something about his delivery that doesn't quite click with me, namely that I never quite buy that he's entirely emotionally invested in his material. In comparison to, say, Usher, who throws everything and the kitchen sink into his love songs, Robin Thicke is a bit more laid-back, and that kind of puts me off a bit. On top of that, too often his lyrics can be a little too jokey and silly, and while there is a certain degree of self-awareness, it can sometimes undercut or confuse the emotional current of the song.

Now granted, I'll admit right now that R&B isn't my strong suit when it comes to genres (one of the reasons I didn't review Ciara's Body Party, outside of no interest and the general consensus being rather mixed on it). It's not that I can't recognize good R&B, but more that I have a much smaller tolerance for it in comparison to, say, country music. Most of this comes from the lyrics, in that too often the subject matter behind them seems a bit thin or the lyrics feel underwritten. But then again, that might be an area where Robin Thicke's goofier side might be an asset - he might not make an incredibly intelligent or moving R&B album, but I bet he could still make an interesting one.

So, how does his new album Blurred Lines fare?

Youtube review after the jump

Well, pretty much exactly as I expected. I wouldn't precisely call Blurred Lines a bad album - it's tolerable enough and doesn't offend - but all of the flaws that I expected with his material haven't precisely gone away.

For a change, let's switch things up a bit and talk about lyrics and theme first, arguably the least essential parts of this album. On first listen, it's immediately clear that Robin Thicke is more of a singles artists - the flow from track to track on Blurred Lines could be considered staccato at best - but his lyrics retain a surprising amount of personality and definitely stick out. Then again, I'm not quite sure that's a good thing, mostly because they stand out by being more than a little ridiculous at points. While I will give Thicke points for lyrical personality, often times I will have to immediately subtract them for some forced rhymes and some truly bizarre punchlines that can't help but raise your eyebrows with disbelief. Take '4 The Rest Of My Life', which starts off as a fairly basic song about him attempting a relationship with someone (I'm guessing it's his wife, because they end up together in the end) and constantly striking out until she calls him up one night - and to get there, Thicke 'stole my daddy's car'. Now, I get it that he's supposed to be younger in the song, but the usage of the word 'stole' just inserts a different connotation that he used the word 'took' or 'borrowed', and it undercut the emotions of the song for me.

And that's not even talking about the songs on this album that are just, well, odd. For example, 'Ain't No Hat 4 That' (it's a good thing you can never detect him swapping out the letters for numbers in the lyrics, because otherwise I'd spend the entire review ranting about how bloody stupid it is) is a strange little track where Thicke talks about a friend of his wife that wants to host a party and coast by on some of their fame (something both he and his wife sound quite uncomfortable with), and how for a party like this, 'there ain't no hat 4 that'. And sure, while I get the metaphor - there's no real way to dress up for a party where you're just being exploited for fame (although come to think of it, given how fame works in our culture, wouldn't an outrageous hat help here) - Thicke uses part of the earlier verse saying his wife did have the right shoes, so the song feels oddly literal. And while 'Blurred Lines' has risen to the top of the charts, most tend to forget how utterly bizarre the lyrics are, playing with the Madonna/Whore complex I haven't seen in a pop song since Akon's 'Sexy Bitch'. Granted, 'Blurred Lines' does it better, drawing the implication that the 'good girl' is wild and likes sex and won't be 'domesticated', but then there are lyrics like 'I know you want it' and 'just let me liberate you' and 'do it like it hurt' come across as more than a little questionable. And while I definitely think that this song isn't as 'rapey' as some have implied (particularly since Thicke is smart enough to follow his line of 'I know you want it' with 'The way you grab me / Must want to get nasty', which implies she's definitely into it), T.I.'s verse about rough sex (including lines about anal like 'I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two') doesn't really help matters.

And admittedly, some of the oddness on this album does make ascertaining a theme rather difficult. From what I've read, before recording this album, Robin Thicke and his wife started going out again with friends and also discovered that the older he felt, the more he realized things weren't as black-and-white as he expected, hence the album title. And really, if we're looking for an album that alternates as a celebration of how great Robin Thicke's life is right now and how he wants to party and have fun, Blurred Lines is a fine enough specimen. Now, I can imagine some of you are asking how on earth this sort of self-congratulatory music can be remotely tolerable, and here's where I'm going to mention the one reason why it works here better than on, say, Jay Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail: Robin Thicke has a sense of humour and self-deprecation, and he doesn't really brag about himself. 

Let's go back to 'Blurred Lines' for a moment. There's a lot going on in that song, but I can definitely see why, on the surface of it, it looks like a bit of a douche anthem with lines like 'You're the hottest bitch in this place' and 'You want to hug me / what rhymes with hug me?'. But the tone of the song doesn't really convey arrogance or swaggering self-satisfaction - between Pharrell's general dopiness, T.I.'s class, and Thicke's self-deprecation, I can't help but feel the song is too ridiculous and silly to be all that offensive. Or take the closing track 'The Good Life' (easily my favourite track) - it's clear in this song that Thicke hasn't really attained the level of fame and success and ridiculous wealth his friends and family have expected, but yet he's still happy, living the good life with his family. It's really the tone of the song and Thicke's delivery that sells it here - he sounds genuinely grateful for the fact he made it (somewhat), and the fact that he knows he's never going to top the A-list makes him more sympathetic.

Now I haven't talked much about Thicke's delivery, and there's a reason for that: I pretty much have nothing but praise for it. Seriously, it's everything I expected from Thicke, and for once, the more laid-back tone of the album does match his delivery. The falsetto is gorgeous as usual, but I actually like his lower range: it's assured and confident and has a fair amount of charisma. And like Justin Timberlake, he's probably capable of carrying an album on his own - which is why his collaborations with 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar (rappers who are nothing alike and yet both don't resonate with me in any way, shape, or form) are easily the weakest tracks on the album, mostly because 2 Chainz is too obnoxious and Lamar just has no charisma or presence besides being nasal and grating.

Of course, the reason why 'Give It 2 U' and 'Go Stupid Wit U' are the weakest tracks aren't just because of the guest stars. No, this problem comes straight from the instrumentation and production, where the album arguably has its biggest problems. Oh, don't get me wrong, the production is top-of-the-line across the board, but there is a marked gulf in quality between these tracks - which are club dance tracks, complete with electronic beat and thumping bass - and the rest, which are blissed-out retro disco tracks. In fact, the majority of the album feels like a 70s throwback, and while it doesn't quite have enough funkiness or edge to match Daft Punk's masterpiece, it definitely still manages to work and it's a damn perfect fit for Thicke. It's also one of the reasons why I like 'The Good Life' so much - it very much sounds like an old Elton John song in the best possible way (hell, it sounds more like Elton John than Elton did himself on Fall Out Boy's album earlier this year).

But here's where the problem is: disco dance albums were all about flow. They had their ebbs and moments where the pace quickened or slowed, but they could be played all the way through and maintain a consistent tone - and the addition of modern club tracks completely ruins it. What's worse is that it actively forces the comparison between said club tracks and the rest, and they can't help but fall painfully flat, only reinforcing the fact that I'd much rather want to be dancing to disco than generic club crap. And the really unfortunate problem is that the comparison doesn't quite make the disco elements of the album look better, but the club tracks look all the worse.

And yet, all in all I still enjoyed the hell out of Blurred Lines (the album, although the song is still pretty good). It's far from perfect, and it probably won't come close to reaching any list of top albums of the year, but in terms of being a sunny summer album, it has a certain flair and endearing charm that I actually like. In not trying to be taken seriously, Robin Thicke actually succeeds, which isn't something I'd say about many artists. And as for instrumentation, I'm reminded a bit of Bruno Mars, who only seems to make good music when it calls back to the past.

Thicke, there's nothing wrong with calling back to the 70s, and if the charts this year have proven anything, it's that. Just step up and own it, and you'll be just fine.

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