Last year, Robin Thicke experienced the rare double-crossover. After a decade of being R&B radio’s darling of blue-eyed soul, he hit pop pay dirt with a No. 1 track; he also crossed over to a number of “Most Hated Celebrities” lists. The reasons for his ascent on both charts were the same: the skin-flick-in-miniature video for his Pharrell-assisted “Blurred Lines” and his subsequent onstage dalliance with pop lightning-rod Miley Cyrus at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. There was also a series of much-tweeted-about public gaffes, like the time he tried to explain why degrading women was “a pleasure.” Thicke is now a bona fide star whose mere existence inspires sneers, and as such Paula, his seventh album, attracted cluck-clucking from the peanut gallery even before it had a chance to leak.
Like Love After War, his fifth LP, Paula is split evenly between tortured-soul balladry and flirtation and leavened with a hefty dose of dorkiness that’s at times so eye-roll-inducing it’s hard to believe it’s not a put-on. But War came out in 2011, before “Blurred Lines” hit, and it was not named after Paula Patton, Thicke’s former companion in love and the gossip pages. The two met when Thicke was 14, started dating two years later and married in 2005; she appeared nude on the cover of his 2002 debut A Beautiful World, and earlier entries in his catalog might as well have been subtitled “Man, Do I Love Schtupping My Gorgeous Ladyfriend.” (The title track to 2009′s Sex Therapy, a former R&B chart-topper, is a particular standout in this department.) In February — well after he’d entered the crosshairs of gossip bloggers, as well as professional feminists who were unaware of his previous work but completely OMG GROSSED OUT by a single lyric of “Blurred Lines” they equated with being pro-rape — he and Patton split up. Or, rather, she dumped him for reasons open to speculation by any website willing to give up the space.
For a while after the separation was announced, Thicke operated under the assumption that he would win his ex back — wearing his wedding ring in public, letting audiences know he still considered Patton his “girl.” This eventually subsided — until May’s Billboard Music Awards, when Thicke debuted “Get Her Back,” the first single from the album that would come to be known as Paula.
And so the album arrives with its own metanarrative attached — recorded in a week, a statement about the relationship, will it work or not? But before the album’s purpose was made plain, I heard “Get Her Back” as an allegory. Blurred Lines, which plucked Thicke from the relative obscurity of the R&B charts just in time for them to be gentrified by sweeping digital-age changes, wasn’t just the launching point for a couple of raunchy Diane Martel-directed videos; it was a step toward blippy dance-pop for the singer, whose previous successes had come via sharp yet sinewy R&B tracks, bolstered by the occasional rapper assist. “Get Her Back,” in contrast to, say, Blurred Lines‘ bouncing-ball jam “Give It 2 U,” is a feather-light come-on where Thicke sings of how he wants to “keep it light” and “get it right” while accompanied by some barely strummed guitars and his own falsetto multiplied. The “her” he sings of could very well be his former audience, or at least people who were aware of his existence on record before the thinkpieces began raining down.
Remove Paula from its surrounding context — the speculation over the brutal video for “Get Her Back,” not to mention titles like “Love Will Grow Back” and “The Opposite of Me” — and what you have, ultimately, is A Robin Thicke Album. It’s not as good as Love After War, but it’s a return to his familiar soul-man pose. Thicke’s sandpaper voice meshes best with R&B, a genre that’s had a paucity of worthwhile albums in 2014: “Whatever I Want” is a breezy toast to the single life that reveals the sadness at its core only before the bridge; “Too Little Too Late” straddles the line between disco and Hi-NRG, with a Greek chorus of backup singers serving as the finger-wagging Patton surrogate; “Living in New York City” borrows the pumping bassline from Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” and grafts it to a funk track about the Big Apple’s inherent empowerment.
Some tracks seemed designed to be cross-referenced with gossip-blog items, the better with which to keep the Paula news cycle humming; the call-and-response “Black Tar Cloud,” with its references to “double dipping” and “self sabotage,” brought to mind a May Radar item speculating over the end of the Thicke/Patton pairing. And like every Thicke album, there are a couple of absurdist moments — the hyperactive “Tippy Toes” and the torchy “Love Will Grow Back” (which similarly festishizes a new mani) will lend themselves well to whatever Broadway musical Thicke’s catalog becomes in 2037.
Paula closes with a put-it-all-out-there ballad during which Thicke, accompanied only by a piano, sings of lessons learned and his desire to remain “a family” with whoever he’s singing to. It’s a quiet closing number, and its unresolved nature makes the album feel unfinished — which, I suppose, gives Paula a sense of heft, even though it is hardly his best album. Say what you will about Robin Thicke (even though plenty has already been said). He might be playing the press, for whom rage-clicks are lifeblood, like a fiddle; he might be deluded enough to think that a quickie album will serve as a salve for a broken marriage. Either way, his stripped-down, at times bewildering version of 21st-century soul music is very much his own, even in the face of a thousand talking heads trying to shout him out of existence.