2013 was certainly an odd year for Robin Thicke. On one hand, his single “Blurred Lines” was by far the most commercially successful single of the year. It topped the charts for the entire summer, and after years of remaining strictly in the R&B world, turned him into a mainstream pop star, at least for a short period. On the other hand, the backlash against it was rather swift. The song was pilloried for its problematic attitudes about women, as many suggested that the song offered that rape was acceptable in certain circumstances. After that, Thicke and co-writer Pharrell Williams were on the losing end of a lawsuit with the estate of Marvin Gaye, due to the song’s similarities to his “Got to Give It Up.” Essentially, “Blurred Lines” built Robin Thicke up, then quickly proceeded to destroy him.
What he did next only compounded the problem. Despite the intense backlash, “Blurred Lines” made Thicke a big deal, and gave him the attention of the entire music world. Unfortunately, he used that attention to make Paula, an album made seemingly for the sole purpose of getting his ex-wife, Paula Patton, to take him back. Not only did the gesture fail, it didn’t help his perception. If people thought he had problematic attitudes about women before, coming off like a public stalker certainly wasn’t helping. The move buried Thicke further, cementing the notion that he was bad news. Now, we can’t help but wonder, after severely damaging his own reputation, if Robin Thicke can ever re-enter the public’s good graces.
However, it’s certainly worth noting that Robin Thicke had a career before “Blurred Lines,” and a rather accomplished one, in fact. While some remember his 2003 buzzing single “When I Get You Alone,” which sampled “A Fifth of Beethoven” by Walter Murphy, his first bona fide hit came in late 2006 by way of the striking “Lost Without U’; a starkly honest, confessional song that would appear to be the polar opposite of his more recent work. He was vulnerable without being creepy, and the song was a well-deserved hit, despite not becoming a true pop smash. The success of “Lost Without U” paved the way for a solid career for Thicke in the world of R&B that would last for some time.
In 2008, he released Something Else, which was a modest commercial success, but earned strong reviews from critics. Singles like “Magic” and “The Sweetest Love” didn’t make much of a dent on the pop charts, but they were big hits in the R&B world, further solidifying him as one of the genre’s mainstays. The following year, he released Sex Therapy: The Session. The title might have been corny — and even more embarrassing considering what happened later — but it was a success nonetheless. It featured appearances from the likes of Kid Cudi, Nicki Minaj and Snoop Dogg, while earning more strong reviews from critics. The album earned him a plum gig as Alicia Keys’ opening act, and further ensured his place as one of R&B’s most significant acts.
Unfortunately, Thicke’s luck was about run out. 2011’s Love After War again did well with critics, but it struggled to find much of a commercial audience. The album peaked at No. 22 on the pop charts, and to date has sold just 200,000 copies, well below his previous efforts. It’s likely that this was the moment that made Thicke decide he wanted to pursue mainstream pop success. Just a year and a half later, he would release Blurred Lines. In addition to the success of the title track, it debuted at No. 1, and spawned another hit in “Give It 2 U,” a collaboration with Kendrick Lamar. On this album, he worked with hitmakers like will.i.am, Timbaland, and of course, Pharrell. Thicke had gotten the smash he desired, but the swift backlash against him left him in a worse place than where he started.
The degree to which he deserves that backlash is a difficult question. On one hand, the themes in “Blurred Lines” are problematic, but there are sadly dozens of popular songs with questionable attitudes about women, and few have been taken to task the way this one was. It was as though Thicke made it to answer for decades of misogyny in the music industry, rather than just for his own faults. What makes this even more awkward is that Pharrell actually wrote the lyrics. Admittedly, Thicke was more than willing to let people believe he had a hand in writing the song when it was popular, so there’s some hypocrisy on his part. Still, when looking at just how much flak he took for “Blurred Lines” — it was banned at several universities — it can’t help but feel like he was a scapegoat; the lone person held accountable for a problem that has infected the entire music world.
It’s interesting that he took far more hits for this than Pharrell did. After all, Pharrell was the one who actually wrote the lyrics that so many people took issue with, and his reputation went largely unscathed. His “Happy” was topping the charts at the same time Thicke was being made into a pariah. The likely answer is that Thicke is more disposable than Pharrell. Let’s be honest: Pharrell has written or produced many of the best pop and R&B songs of the past two decades. Casting him aside would be too costly, so we placed the blame on Thicke, who was a much more minor figure. By doing this, we could act like we took a stand by discarding Thicke, while not letting a hitmaker like Pharrell leave our lives. As South Park might put it, it’s called having your cake, and eating it, too.
Now, the question is whether Thicke’s career can recover, and it won’t be easy. While not all of the backlash Thicke got from “Blurred Lines” was fair, the backlash he got for Paula was. It generally made him look like an unsavory person. Still, the public is very forgiving, especially if you can come back with a song that everyone loves. After wisely lying low for a while, he quietly returned in 2015 with “Morning Sun,” a sultry slow jam which hearkened back to his “Lost Without U” days, and that was followed up by the attempt at self-deprecation “Back Together.” But because both of those didn’t stick, he slowly faded out of the solo spotlight again, perhaps plotting his next return.
Robin Thicke’s reputation is in the gutter right now, but one undeniable jam might be all it takes to rescue it. He has the chops to do it, but will audiences hear him again? Only the future knows.