Robin Thicke's recently released album Paula has been criticized for its content more than its sound. Releasing an album like Paula, Time said, is "a sign you've had an awful year." The album, notoriously, is an ode to Thicke's separated wife of 20 years, Paula Patton. "Paula Patton deserves better, and so do listeners," DJ Booth wrote. But the real problem people have with Paula, it seems, is that it isn't "Blurred Lines."
The listeners, it turned out, agreed. In its first week on the stands, Paula sold only 530 copies in the United Kingdom. No, that number is not missing zeros. That number was a bit better in the United States where it sold almost 25,000 copies, but even that is an embarrassing turnout for Thicke. Blurred Lines sold 117,000 copies in its first week.
Some resent Paula for its mid-tempo big-band style love ballads, but that's what Thicke has been doing all along. The American population knows him for "Blurred Lines," which is the biggest outlier in his entire discography. "After the devil-may care disco of 'Blurred Lines,'" Billboard wrote, "Paula's introspection seems half-baked." But that's the wrong way to approach Paula. This album is Thicke's return to what he's good at: writing and singing ballads about his love life. We can hate Paula for being manipulative, exploitative, and creepy, but we can't hate it for failing to be "Blurred Lines."
It would be so much easier if we could hate Robin Thicke for being misogynistic, exploitative, and creepy and then subsequently write off everything he has ever done. The problem with Robin Thicke is that he is actually talented. He's not a cookie-cutter pop star taught to follow a script and write a couple of hits. He's written 102 songs for himself alone, and that doesn't include the works he wrote for Usher. Of those 102 songs, 97 are about "love," his "baby," or his "girl."
The important point to note here is that Thicke writes his own music. We can discredit Thicke for being creepy, for all of his songs sounding the same, or even for his poor facial hair, but this is a point we have to grant him. Very few artists are writing their music. Almost all stars use producers and writers to create demos and their sound. Robin Thicke, for better or for worse, is writing his own music, which is why we can — unlike other artists — read into the lyrics on his albums for insight into his personal life. And if we look at Thicke's career, it's obvious that his songs were always about Paula, until "Blurred Lines."
Robin Thicke's mushy beginnings
Robin Thicke's career began with two things: a sweet throwback R&B sound, and Paula Patton. Thicke met Patton when he was 14. It was 1991, and the two met in an under-21 club on the sunset strip in Los Angeles. They were still dating when Thicke released his first album, A Beautiful World, in 2003. From the beginning, Paula played a massive role in Thicke's work. She was the love of his life and his muse. She posed naked for the album cover.
From the beginning, Thicke's music centered on his life. His first album was riddled with love songs and references to their relationship.
On "Suga Mama" Thicke sings:
I feel such a fool when she calls
I can't trust myself
From the picket lines
She's got my love, got my help
Got my control (Oh no)
Got my intentions known
Got me aroused, and it shows
It's a stereotypical love song until you look at it in the context of the rest of the album. All 14 songs on the album are about love and loving the woman you're with. The two were married in 2005.
Thicke's next album, The Evolution of Robin Thicke (2006), brought his first big hit: "Lost Without U."
"Lost Without U" topped the Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip Hop charts for nine straight weeks upon its release. Suddenly, Robin Thicke, a 30-year-old white man, was the "fastest rising star in R&B," at least according to the New York Times. In "Lost Without U," Thicke is possessive. His lyrics are demands. Patton plays his love interest in the video.
Tell me how you love me more
And how you think I'm sexy babe
That you don't want nobody else
You don't want this guy
You don't want that guy
In retrospect, "Lost Without U" is maybe the most prescient song of Thicke's career. In the end, he really "can't help" himself. And he did end up lost without Paula. The song is one of Thicke's most desperate, and in light of it, the tone and nature of Paula are hardly a surprise.
Paula was Robin Thicke's everything. Or at least she was built up to be. We can't really know if Paula and Robin's relationship was as sensual, tumultuous, and mushy as the lyrics make it out to be. But as a publicity trick, as a hook to hang his musical career on, his love life with Paula worked.
The "wine and bubbly music" of Thicke's third studio album, Something Else (2008), debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts. It was full of songs like "Magic"—with repetitive lines about love that chant, "I got it, you got it, we got the magic, girl"— and really bad metaphors: "We're just spaceships in the night/Ripping the clothes off of the past/Making a new path," from "Lover Man."
Where it all went wrong
In 2009, something changed. Thicke's fourth studio album Sex Therapy: The Session showed the first hints of the transition he would make with Blurred Lines. The album, for one, is much more about sex than it is about love. Even Thicke wrote in the liner notes that the album showed his "guilty pleasures have been outweighing my good health."
He's right. The album is vapidly sensual. "It's In the Morning" is a song about morning sex:
I cant push sleeping anymore, and you got the hottest body
I got the hottest hottie
Let me put some cream in your coffee
It's also important to note that Sex Experience also features the most songs featuring other artists of any of Thicke's albums with five. The second most is Blurred Lines, which only has three. All of this to say that Sex Therapy is the closest Thicke came to losing complete control over an album. Still, with Sex Experience, Thicke continues to sing about his "Mrs. Sexy," Paula.
Thicke's shift in musical focus must have been noticed by his wife. Just one year after the release of this sensual, sexy album, Paula gave birth to the couple's only child. And Thicke's next album, in 2011, was an apology. Love After War is the precursor to Paula.
Take the title track "Love After War," for example:
"Ooh it's a knock-out baby, you won the fight
I said I'm sorry that I acted like a selfish child
Please forgive me, baby, I was out of line
You know I can make it right
Don't you love it when we fight"
Sounds familiar — Thicke is taking the blame for their fight. In the Spotify commentary tracks, Thicke admits that "You reach that apex of pain and frustration, and somebody has to start that healing process and provide the calm and the hope."
Unlike Paula, though, Love After War is a confessional. He is not only begging her to return to him, he's admitting he's done wrong. It worked. Thicke and Patton stayed together.
Superstardom ruined Robin Thicke
In 2013, the tables turned. "Blurred Lines" rocketed to number one on the Billboard charts blowing his number 14 "Lost Without U" out of the water. It stayed there for 12 weeks and with the help of a risqué video, was promptly dubbed "song of the summer."
"Blurred Lines" went ultra-viral, and Thicke was thrown into the spotlight. In the video for "Blurred Lines," almost-naked women drape themselves over a fully-suited Robin Thicke while he smirks. Robin Thicke tried to argue that the whole thing was a "feminist movement itself" telling The Today Show that the song was saying that "men and women were equals as animals and as power." Thicke later proclaimed to US Weekly that his wife, actress Paula Patton, urged him to put out the video and that he'd "been in love with this woman since he was a teenager." Get that? She pleaded with him to release a video where he is fawned over by beautiful women. That farce (if it was that) could only last so long. The video was banned from YouTube in March 2013 , but lives on on Vevo.
On the whole, the popularity of the song didn't diminish its criticism. Because of aggressive, domineering lyrics like "I know you want it," many saw the song as a clear proponent of rape culture. Tricia Romano at The Daily Beast described the song itself as "rape-y." Twenty universities in the United Kingdom banned the song from their campuses for its sexual politics. At Pacific Standard, Sezin Koehler matched the lyrics with the words of rapists. Just the song and video alone were problematic, but the drama grew. Thicke performed with bikini-clad 20-year-old Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards, and the circus of criticism became unmanageable.
After spending hours listening to the entire discography of Robin Thicke, "Blurred Lines" feels like an entirely different artist, which makes sense because Thicke later admitted that Pharrell wrote the whole thing. The groovy R&B bass line is still there, but the song trades soul for catchy riffs. The singles on this album are produced by will.i.am, and they sound like it. No song on Blurred Lines even charted on the R&B chart, where Thicke had been a staple since 2003. It also shifts Thicke's attention. Instead of another song obviously about Paula, this song could be interpreted differently. Blurred Lines, the album, is a total departure from Thicke's sound.
You the hottest bitch in this place
I feel so lucky
This quote from "Blurred Lines" could be interpreted as a song about his wife, but more than any song beforehand, it's open for interpretation. This is a song about a pursuit. The gloves come off even more in "Feel Good," the fourth single from the album:
If I partied till the morning, would you stay with me
Girl would you play with me, or would you hate on me
If I ran all out of money, would you pay for me or would you stray from me
I need to know it baby
The answer to this, it turned out, was no. Thicke was seen putting his "hands everywhere" on a blonde socialite. Hogwash, Thicke claimed. She was just a girl "looking for attention." He would never cheat on his wife. Paula Patton and Robin Thicke separated in February of 2014, just six months after the accusations that his partying until the morning had left him in the arms of another woman.
This album is nothing new. But it matters.
It's unsurprising that Thicke thought that creating Paula was a good move for his relationship, if not for his career. Thicke never had the monumental success with his R&B sound as he did with "Blurred Lines." Paula is an album that draws on the history of R&B and isn't afraid to date its sounds. Songs like "Too Little Too Late," could have been written last week, or the first week of 1980. There's no way to distinguish them from classic R&B.
As Sophie Gilbert at The Atlantic pointed out, the album itself is downright creepy. But it's nothing new. "Get Her Back," for example, is a complete return to his early 2000s roots. It's an older, more reminiscent "Lost Without U." Thicke told US Weekly that, "There's a hundred different reasons, there isn't just one. There's a long list... I changed, and I got a little too selfish, a little too greedy, and a little too full of myself." The album says the same on "Too Little Too Late" with confessionals like:
Every time you walked through that door
Should've bought white roses good and plenty and rubbed your toes
Every time you walked up in this house baby
Shoulda woulda coulda
Should've shown some R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Paula is mushy, sure, but it is a true return to what Robin Thicke was originally known for. There are no electronic background noises, no high-caliber producers. The musicians in the background are either Thicke himself on the piano, or his friends. The album won't be a uber-viral worldwide hit like "Blurred Lines" was, but that's because it's not made to do that.
At its core, Paula is a good album with a dual purpose. It's trying to "get her back," but it also wants to reassure his original fanbase (and maybe himself) that Blurred Lines was a mid-life crisis, a blip on the radar of a true R&B career. Thicke may be more successful in the later pursuit, though, than he is at getting Paula back. Despite a Billboard performance and two mushy music videos, Paula probably isn't getting Paula Patton back anytime soon. There's something violating about recording and publicizing a 14 song album that completely ignores what your wife wants, and places her in the limelight when she has been undeniably clear about not wanting to be there. But that doesn't make the music itself bad.
Thicke, with his goatee and poor stage presence, was never meant for the limelight. He's a talented musician, and Paula showcases that in the style that Thicke belongs in: a soulful voice serenading his woman, whether she's with him or not. Writing songs about the love of his life has worked for him so far; why would Robin Thicke stop just because his wife has left him? If anything, this is perfect kindling for his career. On his first album, Thicke sang, "All I want to do is please you/ Please myself by living my life too." If Paula is anything, it's that.