Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Pleistocene Era of Robin Thicke

It was in the fall of 2002 that I first tried my hand at "party reporting." A truly noxious task in the field of journalism, it's exactly what it sounds like: Attend glittery social events and suck up to famous people for quotes in the society pages of the newspaper. My first assignment was to attend a showcase for a fledgling soul singer who went by the name Thicke, the mellow, longhaired son of Alan the TV dad from "Growing Pains." Having grown up in suburban LA while his dad penned theme songs like "Diff'rent Strokes," Thicke had made a name for himself as a producer and songwriter who could spin out hits for people like Christina Aguilera. Now he was ready for his own star turn.

This was at a then-swank club on Lafayette Street called Butter, which sported the requisite velvet rope, red carpet (pause, flash), and Leonoardo DiCaprio, the required signifier of Manhattan buzz at the time. In a narrow room with deep leather booths, dim wall sconces and champaign glasses a-tinkling, the place was populated by celebs invited by Jimmy Iovine, the president of Interscope. I first tried approaching Russell Simmons, who was hunched over a Motorola two-way pager. I hardly knew what to say, so I asked if he was a fan of “Growing Pains." Here's what he said: “Yes. If it’s real, sometimes it takes that.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. Perhaps his reply was in some hip-hop code that I couldn't decode. I thanked him and walked away.

I interviewed Andre Harrell, the producer responsible for P. Diddy's fame and the CEO of a label called NuAmerica, a subsidiary of Interscope. He was championing Thicke's first album, Cherry Blue Skies, and his take was that Thicke sounded like Billy Joel crossed with Stevie Wonder. He recalled the first time he hung out with Thicke, impressed that he had "good smoke,” a sure sign to him, he said, that there was something special about Thicke and that they would be fast friends. The two got stoned at Harrell’s place, Thicke did some freestyle singing for him and Harrell told his young upstart, “You need a coach to hone how hot your gift can be.”

After hearing Thicke's album, I was already blown away by how awesomely shameless this guy was, able to deliver with total conviction lines like, Baby, baby you're the shit / that makes you my e-qui-vi-lent. Thicke wasn't bad at the showcase, either, his four-piece band extraordinarily tight and groovy, but his leather pants kept falling down and the fear of an imminent tabloid fiasco was distracting. Everyone held their breath. The biggest moment of the night was when Jay-Z came strolling in, a long gold chain dangling over a grey Che Guerra t-shirt. Thicke was just then performing a version of Al Greene’s “Let’s Stay Together” when Jay slid into a booth with Iovine and some glossy babes and proceeded to affect supreme cool.

When Thicke finished, I asked Toby Maguire if he liked it. “I liked him a lot. I’m seen him a few times. I’m a fan.” DiCaprio, according to my notes, was in a baseball cap pulled down tight over his eyes, smoking Parliaments. “Get back to me later,” he responded, warily. “I like to think about what I’m gonna say.” (i.e. "Please fuck off.") A young TV actress named Hilarie Burton, then an MTV VJ who hosted something called BeatSeekers, was impressed by Thicke. “Oh my god, I love it! A perfect 10!”

I never did interview Thicke himself because I couldn't imagine what to ask him and I was actually embarrassed for him because he seemed so ... naive. By some weird logic, I actually thought I was protecting him from himself by not quoting him. I was terrible at party reporting! And I never did it again.

Unfortunately for Thicke, the NuAmerica label collapsed a few months later, the album's release was stalled and it didn't come out for another year, released with a different title, Beautiful World. The single off that album, "When I Get You Alone," remains a tragically still-born pop masterpiece that probably would have swept the nation if not for some apparent meltdown with Harrell's label (my guess: Harrell's deal with Interscope collapsed).

You could say I've watched Thicke "evolve," if you accept the premise of his latest album, The Evolution of Robin Thicke. He has added his first name, which was probably a good step (the back of the liner notes says simply, "Hi, I'm Robin Thicke"). His live act has definitely exploded since I saw him. He can even get the ladies screaming at a venue as sexless and inappropriate as a Border's Book Store (YouTube video). As I've said before, "white soul" may seem like an oxymoron,but Robin Thicke has the essential thing needed to make it happen: wildly inappropriate expressionism that defies all the usual codes of taste and conduct, delivered with guileless passion. To wit:

Girl, can I frisk you?
Search your body parts?
You look so guilty to me
If I make you nervous
It's because you're hiding WMD's
And I'm going to sentence you
Baby you can do your time on me

That's from "Teach U A Lesson," which works an extended and ill-advised teacher/naughty student metaphor. I say ill-advised, but I wouldn't have it any other way. It's the R. Kelly approach and Thicke is a kind of low-fat R. Kelly. The album is fogged with smokey, minimalist beats and subtle Spanish guitar, a slinky Miami after-hours club vibe that uses large expanses of space to great effect. Basically the whole record is a stoned, horny come-on, like Thicke himself, whose quivering falsetto slithers and loops like neon light on the bay at night, blending Crockett and Tubbs into a single sexual essence. And that's not bad!

"When I Get You Alone" - Thicke

"Teach U A Lesson" - Robin Thicke

"Ask Myself" - Robin Thicke

Robin Thicke's MySpace Page

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