By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2008
R&B star Robin Thicke is backstage at Nissan Pavilion, wearing dark blue jeans, a short-sleeve black shirt and, of course, white skin -- which should go without saying, except that people often assume he's black when they hear his soulful singing. (He's always gotten that. Always considered it high praise, too.)
Four hours before a performance on the undercard of Mary J. Blige's Love Soul Tour, Thicke is sitting in the dining room, at a table with 13 types of hot sauce on it, sipping tea and talking about race -- about being a 31-year-old "white guy who looks like a white guy" (right down to the blue eyes) but who sings black music to majority-black audiences.
If he's bored with this aspect of his story, he's certainly not showing it. In fact, Thicke is actively promoting it while pushing his new album, the appropriately titled "Something Else," which will be released Tuesday.
"I'm not a white guy who sells endless amounts of records to white people," he says. "Eighty or 90 percent of my fans are African Americans, mostly grown black women. That's who's at my shows, who's buying my music, who's listening to me on the radio. I think that's pretty interesting."
Let others ignore the elephant in the room. Robin Thicke prefers to parade it around!
Theoretically, in 2008 America, where a black man running as a "post-racial" candidate is thisclose to becoming president and a black singer (Darius Rucker) is suddenly sitting atop the country-music charts, the color of Robin Thicke's skin should be a nonstarter, shouldn't it?
But this is still a decidedly race-conscious society. And Thicke is a fascinating case, having transcended race in a quantifiably unprecedented way: His signature single, "Lost Without U," topped Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart for 11 weeks last year, making it the most successful song by a white artist since Billboard relaunched the chart in 1965. It is also the longest-running R&B hit of the past two years, spending more weeks at No. 1 than anything by Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Usher or anyone else.
Singing of love and rapture in a sweet if frail falsetto, Thicke became the first white performer to reach the top R&B slot since British songstress Lisa Stansfield did it in 1992. (Not even Justin or Eminem could get there.) He's sold about 1.5 million copies of his last album, 2006's "The Evolution of Robin Thicke."
"I still haven't really been played on pop radio, not like R&B," says Thicke. And sure enough, though "Magic" -- the uplifting and upbeat first single from "Something Else" -- is in the Top 10 of Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, it has barely registered on the Billboard Hot 100.
Washington was Thicke's breakthrough market two years ago, when "The Evolution of Robin Thicke" received early support from black-oriented radio stations here -- most notably WPGC-FM, which helped to break "Lost Without U" nationally.
"I've heard white guys with soulful voices before, but Robin Thicke is like the one who's been given the card," says Donnie Simpson, host of WPGC's popular morning show. "Our women really dig him; they want to go to bed with him. And for most of the brothers, it seems like we're okay with that! We think he's cool; that is definitely different."
He adds: "I'm guess I'm one of them Stevie Wonder kinda guys: We're all one. And when I see it on display like that, when I see people so accepting of someone from the other side of the tracks, it warms my heart, man."
Says Dyana Kass, director of marketing at Interscope (Thicke's label): "D.C. was very accepting of a white boy singing soul music. There were signs early on there that Robin was resonating with urban females. And when we looked at what was happening in D.C., we went: 'Okay, this is possible. We can make something happen with that community.' "
The son of former sitcom star Alan Thicke (Dr. Jason Seaver on "Growing Pains") and actress-singer Gloria Loring became the fastest-rising and, perhaps, most unlikely R&B star of 2007. (Alan Thicke is Canadian! Can't get any whiter than that.)
"It's hard to sing good soul music," says Danyel Smith, editor in chief of Vibe magazine. "There's a lot of black people doing it, and Robin Thicke is a white guy doing it. . . . I guess I don't attach that much significance to it when I listen to a great song like 'Magic.' What he's doing is just accepted. That's what I like about him: He's authentic. You can tell he's singing with his whole soul, which is the definition of R&B music. That's what everybody's responding to. To me, Robin's race is secondary."
Except for when it's not. In an interview with Billboard this summer, Thicke bellyached that his skin color had kept him from getting onto the cover of Vibe's October issue, which instead features the naked black singer Ciara, whose last album was outsold by Thicke's. He told Billboard that he was disappointed but that he respected the magazine's prerogative to feature people of color almost exclusively on its covers.
Says Smith, the Vibe editor: "All the best soul singers and hip-hop artists and pop singers are candidates for covers of Vibe magazine. . . . And we're hoping that one day Robin Thicke does see his Vibe cover."
Says Thicke: Oops.
"I feel so stupid about it," he says. "I didn't mean for it to be an issue. Vibe has always supported me; these are friends, not enemies. What I said was out of love for the magazine: I really want to be on the Vibe cover. But Vibe never said anything about not putting me on the cover because of the color of my skin.
"What happened was, I'd been telling my friends that I want the cover. And my boys said, 'I don't think I've ever seen a white person on the cover.' The [Billboard] writer and I were just talking about race and how doors get closed sometimes. They've been closed for 400 [expletive] years. Every day in our culture, people don't get jobs just because they're black. My wife [Paula Patton], being a black actress, doesn't get the opportunities that somebody with her talent should, simply based on the color of her skin. There's Democrats who won't vote for Obama just because he's black. There are 100 magazines that won't have African Americans in them.
"Let's focus on those problems, not Robin Thicke's I-can't-get-on-the-cover-of-Vibe problem. My 'Vibe problem' isn't really the problem. I'm not the victim."
But, he adds: "The fact is, there are some magazines that I'm not in at all that the people who bought my last album read."
Like . . . what? Jet? Ebony?
"I've learned -- there will be no more names!" Thicke says.
* * *
Thicke grew up in Los Angeles, in the center of the entertainment industry. His parents worked in television -- primarily onscreen, but they also composed the theme songs for "Diff'rent Strokes" and "The Facts of Life."
They divorced when Thicke was 7 but lived 15 minutes apart. Thicke and his brother would spend one week with their Bruce Springsteen-loving dad ("He'd go see all five Springsteen concerts in L.A.") and one week with their soul-music-loving mom ("Luther Vandross, Jeffrey Osborne, Whitney Houston -- she had singers on all the time, all day").
"It was a pretty basic childhood," Thicke says. "The only difference is, when your parents are celebrities and you have a barbecue or a party or an Easter egg hunt at your house, you don't get the attention. In most houses, the kids would get that attention, but everybody comes over and your parents are getting all of it. That either creates a kid who's hungry and craves that attention, or a kid who's like: 'I don't need any of that, I'm going to close my door and stay away.' I became the kid who was like: 'Look at me! Look at me!' . . . That need for attention is probably what made me want to sing and be a performer."
Thicke was enamored with black music from an early age, influenced partly by his mother's musical tastes but also intrigued by the way N.W.A. somehow made the killing fields of South Central sound alluring. "When I was 8 or 9," he says, "you pretty much had to decide: Are you listening to Guns N' Roses or are you listening to N.W.A.? Which side of the culture are you following? My brother had Metallica on his wall; I was playing N.W.A. along with Stevie Wonder."
Thicke eventually began to teach himself to play the piano: The first soul song he learned was Brian McKnight's "One Last Cry," a weepy quiet-storm ballad that became a hit when Thicke was in high school. "It has a lot of complex chords," he says. "So once I figured out how to play that, I could pretty much write about 10 songs."
He also acquired a perfect nickname: "All my friends used to call me Brian McWhite," he says with a laugh.
Thicke attended Montclair College Preparatory School in the San Fernando Valley, a school whose alumni include Cher, Nicole Richie, Frank Sinatra Jr. and Michael Jackson. He had a high, airy tenor and a wardrobe full of hip-hop brands. Sometimes, he says, he'd show up at school with a copy of one black magazine or another.
"The black kids were like: 'Why the [expletive] you got an Ebony magazine?' " he recalls. "Well, where else could I read about my favorite groups, like Jodeci? I couldn't read about them in Rolling Stone and those other magazines. . . . But I probably was doing it to say 'I'm down' in some ways, too."
He formed a group -- "a white guy and three black guys" -- and they recorded a four-song demo that, he says, sounded like a cross between Jodeci and Boyz II Men. They called themselves Az-One and wore natty outfits inspired by the popular groups of the day, right down to the accessories: "I always had a cigar or a cane."
McKnight himself heard the demo and signed him to a production deal through Interscope (so much for Az-One!). By the age of 16, Thicke was writing songs for other artists, beginning with R&B singer Brandy. "I was immediately in the game," he says. "I was a pretty cocky Brian McWhite."
Thicke recorded a solo album but it was never released, and he was let go by Interscope. Still, he continued to write and eventually began producing for other artists: Christina Aguilera, Pink, Michael Jackson, Mya, Marc Anthony. "I was on five of the top 20 albums in the country at 20 years old," Thicke says. "It was a great run. But I was hiding. I was a singer and I wasn't singing."
He returned to Interscope and began to work an album of his own. He also began to grow out his hair, vowing not to cut it until he heard himself singing on the radio. He eventually got there, with "When I Get You Alone," a minor hit from his 2003 debut, "A Beautiful World." The album was a critical hit but a commercial dud, selling fewer than 75,000 copies, back when stars were selling that many in a day.
"It was disappointing," Thicke recalls. "And I'd stopped writing songs for other people, so the money ran out. I was living way beyond my means, renting a very expensive house up in the Hollywood hills." He struggled to get Interscope to pay for studio time and musicians to work on a second album, until the Virginia Beach hitmaker Pharrell Williams -- a fan of Thicke's debut -- persuaded the label to let Thicke sign with his Star Trak imprint.
Released in October 2006, "The Evolution of Robin Thicke" sold modestly at first but began to take off just as "Lost Without U" was ascending on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart. Thicke, whose evolution included a haircut, was touring as John Legend's opening act when the song reached No. 1, and stayed there. And then Oprah Winfrey had him on, which officially signaled his arrival.
On "Evolution," Thicke was making throwback soul -- sensitive, classic-sounding music performed with a live band, often with Thicke's own piano up front, alongside his open, vulnerable vocals. He was singing personal songs about loneliness and frustration, but also love and sexuality and social change, sometimes at the same time, as in "Would That Make U Love Me," on which he wondered: "If I'm a different color/Could you be my brother?"
The new album, "Something Else," finds Thicke digging deeper into classic soul (Motown, Philly, Chicago) with echoes of '60s pop and, on "Hard on My Love," the fuzzed-out guitar-rock of Jimi Hendrix, or at least Lenny Kravitz channeling Hendrix.
Album-opener "You're My Baby" is a warm embrace, "like I'm just going to open up my arms and bring you in -- because I was thinking more and more about togetherness," Thicke says.
On "Dream World," a hazy, slow-burning soul-pop song, Thicke imagines a world in which the ice caps aren't melting, energy falls from the sky and he isn't "so damn sensitive." (Might not be a great place, though, as his sensitivity is one of his artistic strong suits.) Still, the song's money lines are these: "There would be no black or white/The world would just treat my wife right/We could walk down in Mississippi, no one would look at us twice."
"My wife's father was a sharecropper from Mississippi," Thicke says. "But it doesn't matter where you go. We could be in L.A. or New York and go into a room where we're not welcome."
So about that "post-racial" thing? "Yeah, good luck," Thicke says, adding that he accepts that his race "will always be a part of the conversation, until I surpass those boundaries by just becoming Robin Thicke."
Meaning that at some point, if he's successful enough, maybe then people will stop describing him as "an R&B star who doesn't look like one" (New York Times) or "Tall White Chocolate Mocha" (a poster on the 6-foot-3 singer's Web site) -- if only because he'll have reached that point of mass recognition at which such descriptors are no longer necessary, when his whiteness goes without saying.
"You don't say: 'Marvin Gaye, R&B singer,' " Thicke notes. "It's just [expletive] Marvin Gaye. . . . It's my job to make enough great music to where people just go: 'That's Robin Thicke.' That's it: 'Robin Thicke.' " Pretty black and white, no?