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Thursday, October 16, 2008


ModMusic: Robin Thicke

I'm guessing that every review of Robin Thicke's new CD Something Else, by every reviewer, everywhere in the world, until the end of time, will have a variation on the following sentence: Robin Thicke has a shameless ability to mimic, rip off, emulate, and otherwise duplicate the sounds and vocal stylings of Marvin Gaye. Whether you think this is a bad or good thing depends on three elements: your fondness for Gaye, your forgiveness for borrowed inspiration, and your judgement on Thicke's ability for impersonation.

As it happens, I am very fond of Marvin Gaye; in fact, he is my favorite musical artist of all time. I also think Thicke does a decent job of re-creating the grooves and emotions of the master...at least, enough to mitigate any lingering resentment I might feel at the musical theft. If I shut my eyes, the resemblance is uncanny; down to the arrangements and instrumentation, down to the name-dropping of Gaye in the lyrics, down to the vocal scratches and smoothness, it's a bit like finding a lost recording...one that might have been too sugary-pop for Marvin to have released during his lifetime, but has been rediscovered after his untimely demise.

But when the buttery neo-soul fades into the space between tracks, one has to deal with the unpleasant aftertaste of derivation. A question sits in the middle of Something Else like a huge blinking road sign -- can one appreciate the mimic in their own right, or are they forever attached, parasitically, to their inspiration's greatness? Without doubt, Mr. Thicke is a talented songwriter and vocalist; he brings a smoldering intensity to uptempo tunes ("Hard On Your Love") and balladry ("The Sweetest Love"). But it's hard -- nay, impossible -- to separate him from his muse and hero. And maybe that's the way Thicke likes it. Certainly, there's a choice made when a track like "Ms. Harmony" utilizes chord progressions and tom-tom beats straight out of "Mercy, Mercy Me," or when the leadoff track "You're My Baby" uncannily replicates "When Did You Stop Loving Me"...heck, when you name one of your tracks "Lover Man," you're inviting comparison at an unprecedented level. Something Else drifts from mere homage into a more direct, more aggresively plagiaristic mirror image of the master's best work. What's Going On, indeed.

Is it enjoyable? Very. But it's also a musical Xerox. It's a tribute that seeks to supplant the object of affection. And in that regard, it's as troubling as it is accomplished, fraught with questions where effortlessness should rule. It's not Something Else at all...and next time, I hope Mr. Thicke will step into the spotlight unadorned, and on his own merits.
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