I give Robin Thicke a great deal of credit for carving out a distinct niche within R&B music. Ever since his career took off, thanks to his sensuous falsetto supplications on “Lost Without U” and the rest of the phenomenal Evolution of Robin Thicke album, Thicke songs have been unmistakable to the ear. That being said, I’ve had reservations about placing him amongst the genre’s upper-echelon artists. ‘Robin Thicke, you can’t take him that seriously, especially lyrically: one of his biggest hits is entitled “Sex Therapy,” for god’s sake,’ I had always thought. Until I listened to his latest album, Love After War, which delves deeper into verbal poignancy and delivers on enriching his discography.
Thicke branches out in this album but does not neglect his tried and true. “I Don’t Know How It Feels To Be You” represents the most signature Thicke sound – the track is laced with that pleading, delicate falsetto voice we’ve come to love. Robin draws inspiration for this track, and much of the album, from his romantic relationship with his wife, the lovely actress Paula Patton. Thicke proceeds in a dutiful, apologetic manner throughout the song. “Though I try to learn your steps, I don’t know what makes you dance, I don’t know what turns your gray skies back to blue,” expressing how even amidst mutual love and affection, those dear to us can still remain enigmatic.
“Love After War” applies further paint to the canvas of Thicke’s marriage, describing how discord can suddenly transition to intimacy. “Please forgive me baby,” he appeals. “I was out of line, you know I can make it right, don’t you love it when we fight?” He continues, remarking, “When we go we go so hard, it only makes me want you more.” We get the impression that not everything about Thicke’s marriage is perfect, and that’s okay. With a healthy dose of passion, fleeting anger will, indeed, must, lead to amour.
Love After War could not be labeled R&B without a track like “Mission,” the most classic, smooth-sounding offering on the album. “It’s good to be back, back in your arms,” Thicke croons. “Here with my baby, right where I belong.” It’s a damn good, sexy song. What more is there to say? Thicke successfully abandons his stylistic conventions and loses himself on “Cloud 9,” a slow and easy blues melody. “I’m just trying to get by,” Thicke rambles soulfully. “I’m doin’ just fine, sittin’ here livin’ on cloud nine.” The thoughtful guitar accompaniment reminds me of relaxing tones orchestrated in the mode of jazz legend Kenny Burrell.
Finally, the album twists in a third direction, as Thicke for the first time in his music addresses current social and political issues. “The New Generation,” implicitly observing the uprisings of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, proves that Thicke can convincingly tackle topics beyond the bedroom. The song repeats the powerful refrain “we believe,” insisting, “We want to see our children live better than you and me.” Thicke seems genuine in pressing for social activism, not shying away from potentially controversial lyrics. “Shout your national anthem for all your countrymen died in vain,” he belts out. If Thicke’s voice was not sufficient by itself, the track’s fantastic trumpet parts will have you marching your feet in no time.
Thicke employs peppy orchestration a la George Gershwin/Leonard Bernstein as a compliment to “The New Generation” on the powerful anthem, “Never Give Up.” The bright brass beginning leads into woodwinds, which lead into the string section, and finally the entire orchestra, culminating on the forte chorus sung by Thicke, “Never give up!” While you might have “lost your heart” or your will, Thicke insists, even if you have “lost your faith and your confidence,” you have to persevere. Although the lyrics don’t state it outright, the collective implication from the album is that no matter what struggles you face, love will keep you going. On Love After War, Robin Thicke proves he can produce a poignant social message in addition to a sultry slow jam. I’m all ears.
No R&B singer has produced more consistently great work in the last decade than Anthony Hamilton, in terms of both quantity and quality. Having released six albums since 2003, including his break-out album Coming From Where I’m From which went platinum, Grammy-winner Hamilton stands in a league of his own.
Usher clearly gets the nod as far as popularity, but there’s an ever-so-subtle artistic stratification between Usher’s lyrics, “honey got a booty like pow, pow, pow,” and Hamilton’s, “ain’t nobody worryin’ when the kids die young and the mothers are suffering.” It’s a toss-up with Musiq Soulchild, who can compete on both the quantity and quality fronts. Musiq’s latest records, however, have strayed from excellence and do not feature the same degree of outstanding studio instrumentation characteristic of every Hamilton album.
Back To Love is refreshingly not about pouring drinks at the club. It’s not about hollering at girls in high heels. Hamilton does despair heartaches and pains, as every dutiful R&B singer is obliged to do. Overall, the album attempts to bring society as a whole “back to love,” which Hamilton reiterates in his daily promotional tweets. The title track details a relationship that has lost some of its luster, which Hamilton entreats to restore. “We stopped sayin’ I love you, spendin’ quality time / Lord help us, we’re running out of season.”
Four track names include “love” in the title. “How many times have you searched and just gave up on love?” Hamilton begins one of my favorite tracks, Fair In Love. Of course, we know that we can’t give up on love because it’s so “lonely” when there’s “no love waiting on you.” Hamilton seems to travel on his own journey back to love over the course of the album. Finally at the end he admits that he is ready to open up to love on one of the last songs, I’m Ready. “Show me your eyes, your heavenly eyes, and let’s share our hearts tonight.” Back To Love encourages us to continue seeking out love, to take love seriously, and to love above all. You can’t knock that message.
I would suggest the album also focuses on “going back to” authentic R&B, as it was composed in the good old days. No autotune, no heavy synthesizers, no reverb; just real vocals and real instruments. Back To Love reminds us that Hamilton still reigns supreme. What say you, Maxwell and D’Angelo?
Working on a review of this album, but here’s some good music to tide you over.
The reasons why I have to review Bay Area singer Jeremy Passion’s Pixelated EP and For More Than A Feeling full-length album are numerous. Let’s backtrack four and a half years to when a young singer-songwriter from San Francisco posted his first ever video on a relatively new website of an original song, “Mrs. Intuition.” With sultry vocals and effortless guitar strumming, Passion blasted into our generation’s newest underground music scene, known as YouTube. As of today, Passion’s acoustic soul covers and own material offered on his YouTube channel have garnered an astounding twenty-five million views. I’m inducting him into the inaugural class of YouTube sensations.
My own introduction to Passion was facilitated by one of my friends, who as a fellow R&B aficionado pointed me to Passion’s medley of Trey Songz’s “Can’t Help But Wait and Ne-Yo’s “So Sick.” What a voice, was my first impression. Since then I have followed along as Passion has put out fantastic covers of some of my favorite R&B tracks, including tunes from artists like Musiq Soulchild, John Legend, Destiny’s Child, and Drake. In the back of my mind, I’ve always wondered if his YouTube covers were enough in and of themselves, if putting up videos was the be-all, end-all for this talented musician. You can thus imagine my excitement when Passion announced a Kickstarter campaign to fund his brand new full-length album and the Pixelated EP. While Passion follows through on his promise to deliver authentic music with a message, I find myself unsatisfied with the results.
For More Than A Feeling begins with a gospel-flavored introductory song, Greater Is He. “Lord, I give you my heart, my mind, and my soul,” Passion sings, before jumping into a brief scat solo. The upbeat energy of the guitar and keyboard hits carry the tune, along with several brief rhythmic embellishes, but otherwise the song falls flat. Passion never hid his spirituality, but the songs he covered over the years were not indicative of the degree to which religious beliefs defined him.
“Trace” and “32” float along as uplifting tributes to love and family, again staying true to the artist’s own mission statement. Finally on the next three tracks, “Survive,” “This Ain’t The Way,” and again on “I Don’t Care,” Passion delivers the R&B tunes I have been waiting for. Passion’s best asset has in my mind always been his voice. The man can flat out sing, and this comes to light over the course of the album. More than anything, For More Than A Feeling reveals Passion’s diverse compositional tastes and should appeal to a wide audience. Unfortunately for me, the album under-represents the R&B side of his identity.
The same can be said for his Pixelated EP, in which Passion delivers two new tunes, an acoustic version of “I Don’t Care,” and re-recordings of two old originals “Oh Vienna” and “As Long As You Wait For Me.” Both albums feature the desired level of sound production. The vocals are well mixed and the instrumentation crisp. Passion’s lyrics are very personal and I hope he continues to tell his story now that he’s published his first albums.
My favorite song of Hamilton’s newest release plus a dope spring 2011 track from Mr. David
New Zealand reggae/funk/dub band. From reading comments on Youtube it seems like they are great live. I believe it.