Of the three Justin Timberlake vehicles released this year, only Friends with Benefits, where JT rom-commed around New York City with Mila Kunis, could even charitably be described as a success. No one should be sadder about this fact than Robin Thicke, whose second-biggest career boost (after being allowed to orbit Planet Weezy circa 2008, when that meant something) came from Timberlake’s decision to pursue acting full time. Timberlake’s hiatus from music meant a vacant niche for a falsetto-wielding white dude doing pop-R&B, and Thicke, who outshines Timberlake as a vocalist as dramatically as Timberlake outshines him at pretty much everything else, could certainly fit that bill. His last album, 2009’s Sex Therapy: The Session, skewed decidedly urban, with Prince displacing Marvin Gaye as the key reference, and Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, Snoop Dogg, and Kid Cudi crowding in for guest spots where previously a lone Weezy had sufficed.
The move wasn’t entirely unsuccessful. If anything, Thicke went too far in rebranding himself, now standing as the rare specimen of a white singer who does better on the R&B charts than the pop charts. Perhaps that says something about the extent to which Thicke, whose heart ultimately beats Stax/Atlantic, not Def Jam, immbues his performances with the grit of an old-time soul man. Thicke objects to the “blue-eyed soul” label, and he has every right to protest it; at least as far as his vocals are concerned, he delivers genuine-article, unqualified soul. For all the PR dollars dumped into their careers, “crossover” acts likes B.o.B. and Bruno Mars never manage to match their pop success in urban markets; Thicke’s inverted marketing woes certainly mean lower album sales, but they also underscore something about his music that an especially generous observer might call authenticity.
Though it’s no better or worse than Sex Therapy as a collection of songs, Love After War lacks the sense of intent that made Thicke’s foray into electro-funk such a surprising success. Love After War is an equivocal collection of blues, soul, and swing, and however much Thicke dislikes the constant Timberlake comparisons, they’re more flattering than the Michael Buble ones which this latest collection often invites. While the opening pair of “An Angel on Each Arm” and “I’m an Animal” benefit from Thicke’s uncharacteristically forceful vocal and his band’s surging, brassy funk, they’re also pretty unrepresentative of the album as a whole. Simpering lounge jams and insinuating bossa nova predominate as Love After War wears on, with Thicke’s luxuriant falsetto gilding some of the most unremarkable ballads ever penned.
Though his feathery coos and whispers have long been his calling card, Thicke spends most of Love After War singing in full voice, with mixed results. It’s true that a little falsetto goes a long way with most listeners, but there’s also little doubt that Thicke’s voice sounds plain, though still handsome, on numbers like “Cloud 9”—and since Love After War stretches its seduction routine out for 17 tracks, the weight of its throwaway songs starts to add up. But anyone who’s still buying Robin Thicke albums knows exactly what they’re in for, and it’s hard to imagine said customer remaining dissatisfied when Thicke swoops them off to into the Maxwell-sphere for “I Don’t Know How It Feels to Be U” He sings high and says “baby” a lot. For now, Thicke is a niche artists wholly secure in his niche. Why upset the balance?