Robin Thicke, a Romantic, Has a Naughty Hit

July 21st, 2013

Chad Batka for The New York Times

Mr. Thicke, 36, is a bundle of contradictions.

BOSTON — Robin Thicke was having a smoke behind the Colonnade Hotel here after performing his hit “Blurred Lines” at a radio promotion party when he attracted the attention of some teenagers passing by. They knew he was famous, but they still had trouble placing him.

“Is that Justin Timberlake?” a young man asked. Mr. Thicke exhaled smoke and shook his head with a wry smile. “It’s Robin Thicke,” Mr. Thicke’s manager said. “Can I hug you?” a wide-eyed young woman asked. She ran to Mr. Thicke, and as they hugged, she squealed, “Oh, my God.”

These days, Mr. Thicke gets mistaken for Mr. Timberlake less and less. With “Blurred Lines,” he has finally scored a No. 1 hit, after 20 years of writing romantic R&B songs that did well with black audiences, especially women, but never crossed over to pop radio.

As the young woman left with her friends, Mr. Thicke climbed into the back seat of a black S.U.V., settling in next to an empty car seat that belongs to his 3-year-old son, Julian Fuego. The boy had fallen asleep during his father’s set, and his mother, the actress Paula Patton, had taken him back to the nearby Four Seasons. “We still got the baby seat in here,” Mr. Thicke said. “How rock ‘n’ roll is that?”

At 36, Mr. Thicke is a bundle of contradictions: a white singer from a privileged Hollywood family who sounds as if he got his start working smoky R&B clubs; a family man who married his first sweetheart but croons about sex and seduction with the moist heat of a veteran ladies’ man; a songwriter with a political conscience whose video for “Blurred Lines” is so risqu? — it features nearly nude models cavorting around Mr. Thicke as he leers and sings, “I know you want it” — that critics accused him of objectifying women and reinforcing rape myths.

The deliberately lewd video stirred up a predictable storm of publicity, both positive and negative. It turned out to be a marketing coup, transforming Mr. Thicke within days into a recognizable star and helping to propel the song up the pop chart. The song is a catchy come-on that Mr. Thicke composed in a few hours with Pharrell Williams (who also performs in it) over a ‘70s funk beat, and it has topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for five weeks. That success has raised expectations for his sixth studio album, also titled “Blurred Lines” (Star Trak/Interscope Records), to be released on July 30.

“It’s like being an athlete and finally winning a championship,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been waiting to win a championship, just one, before I retire.”

This moment was long in coming. From the time he was 16 and landed a recording contract with Jimmy Iovine at Interscope Records, Mr. Thicke has had some of the most influential producers and artists in the R&B world betting on his talent.

His early mentors included the singer Brian McKnight and the producer Andre Harrell. Both heard a powerful soul singer in the longhaired, idealistic son of the actor Alan Thicke, best known for playing the father on “Growing Pains,” and the singer Gloria Loring. “It’s really hard for a white singer to play on the radio and really sound like he’s a black church singer,” Mr. Harrell said. “His gift is romantic intimacy.”

Mr. Thicke’s smooth vocals and falsetto became a staple on urban adult radio, and a few of his songs, like “Lost Without U” and “Sex Therapy,” have topped Billboard’s R&B chart. But until now, a pop radio hit had eluded him.

Mr. Iovine attributes the success of “Blurred Lines” to the popularity of the retro R&B sound that has developed over the last two years, not any change in Mr. Thicke’s songwriting. “The market is now timed to where he wants to be,” he said. “He didn’t go after the market.”

Mr. Thicke said he gravitated toward R&B from a young age. Though his father loved Bruce Springsteen and Gordon Lightfoot, his mother, who had a long career as a singer and recorded the hit duet “Friends and Lovers” in 1986, considered rock vocals to be “a bunch of yelling.” Her house in Sherman Oaks, Calif., was filled with the music of Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross and Marvin Gaye.

Ms. Loring recalled that her son started singing as a toddler and often pretended to be a lead singer when he and other children would play. A great mimic, he learned early on to do impressions of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson to impress his friends. By 14, he had formed a vocal group, As One, and started performing R&B songs in churches. It was a demo tape he recorded with the group that intrigued Mr. McKnight and eventually led to his first recording contract.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 21, 2013

A previous version of this article misstated Pharrell Williams’s role in the album “The Evolution of Robin Thicke.” He was the executive producer, not the producer. The album was produced by Robin Thicke and Pro J. The song “Wanna Love You Girl” was produced by the duo the Neptunes, of which Mr. Williams is a member.

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