R&B crooner Robin Thicke has undergone a fascinating transformation over the past ten years. When he dropped his debut album, A Beautiful World, in 2002, the singer billed himself as simply Thicke. Sporting flowing long hair and a grunge look, he gained some notice through his retro 70s tune “When I Get You Alone.” Due to little publicity, the stellar album sank into oblivion. Thanks to Neptunes producer Pharell as well as rappers such as Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes, Thicke received a hip hop makeover on 2006′s The Evolution of Robin Thicke. The ballad “Lost Without U” became a massive hit, signaling the arrival of a blue-eyed soul star. 2008′s Something Else leaned heavily toward his strength—updating 70s R&B—but did not impact the charts as much as its predecessor. Therefore his hip hop connections largely dominated 2009′s Sex Therapy, where he sometimes took a back seat to guests such as Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Nicki Minaj, and Kid Cudi.
While his “mack daddy” persona emerged in such Sex Therapy cuts as the title track, “Rollacoasta,” and the infamous “Shakin’ It for Daddy,” he largely subdues it on his latest album Love After War. Instead, he concentrates on vocal and lyrical maturity, showing impressive artistic growth in just two years. At 17 tracks, Love After War is a bit bloated, but it marks a welcome return to his retro soul roots.
As the album title suggests, Thicke’s album narrates the sometimes rocky road of a relationship. The sultry, bossa nova-kissed title track paints an ugly picture of a fight: “Caught in lies, doves cry, doors slam and broken lights/Bottles hit the TV screen,” he sings. As with typical Thicke tunes, love eventually wins: “Wanna put down our weapons baby/ Lay your clothes down on the floor/ And give me some love after war,” his seductive voice pleads. This topic has certainly been covered before, but Thicke adds a layer of sophistication to it through his smooth vocals and chord changes.
Unlike Sex Therapy, Love After War explores some of Thicke’s other influences, including 1960s rock tinged with Memphis horns. “An Angel on Each Arm” mashes the Rolling Stones with Stax to produce one his most aggressive tracks yet. It departs slightly from his typical soul man persona, but works well. His voice also demonstrates grit and confidence on the pulsing rocker “Animal.” The ballad “What Would I Be” injects some gospel piano and vocals into the proceedings, while “The Lil’ Things” incorporates some blues. One could imagine Ray Charles delivering this delicate tune about a relationship’s life cycle, from “first words and first hurts” to “memories and golden years.” It finds Thicke in a rare retrospective mood, shifting from focusing strictly on graphic sexuality. Here, he shows maturity by describing how the “lil’ things” add up to a solid love story.
Fans of Thicke’s usual sound—sensual ballads and hip-hop-heavy jams—will not be disappointed with his latest effort. “Tears on My Tuxedo” resembles “Lost Without U” in that he employs his falsetto tone over a Latin-themed beat. Here, the lyrics paint a troubled relationship, reaching no resolution at the song’s end. “I must rely on my instincts cause I can’t trust your words or your tears anymore,” he laments. “Cause just when we’re about to get down to the truth/ You start cryin’ ’bout how life is so cruel to you/ And there’s nowhere to go but try and console.” While the actual lyrics present a much darker picture than in a typical Thicke slow jam, the tune’s lovely chords and his almost fragile voice add a level of seduction. While the album contains far fewer hip hop tracks, “Pretty Lil’ Heart” should satisfy those who enjoy his collaborations with Lil Wayne on The Evolution of Robin Thicke. Thicke’s creamy vocals and Lil Wayne’s rap set the sexy scene, the horns recall 1970s-era Stevie Wonder rather than a rap track.
As the title of his 2006 breakthrough suggests, Thicke is an evolving artist. Love After War represents his constant search for a unique identity—in other words, how can he integrate retro vibes into modern R&B tracks, avoiding the pitfall of merely regurgitating 70s soul? Is he a Barry White or Teddy Pendergrass-like loverman, or a classy, restrained old school crooner? Love After War may not definitively answer those questions, but it does reveal a maturing talent who clearly wants to address topics beyond sexual prowess. Blue-eyed soul and neo-soul enthusiasts who may have been alienated by his last effort should give Love After War a listen, and experience the latest stage of a growing singer/songwriter.