Deep Album Cuts Vol. 9: Robin Thicke

For most of his career, Robin Thicke has been successful but easily underestimated, embraced by R&B audiences but never one of its biggest stars, and held at arm's length by pop culture and the Top 40 world as kind of a funny curio, the scion of a sitcom star turned blue-eyed soul singer. And I kinda figured that's how it always would be, until a little song called "Blurred Lines" came along as a chart-topping megahit earlier this year, with the release of an album of the same name coming out in a few weeks. So I thought it'd be a good time to look at his vastly underrated back catalog, which I think has become pretty impressive over time, better than I've seen anyone give credit for.

When he started out over a decade ago, he was just plain 'Thicke,' and while he'd already displayed some songwriting talent, most notably on Jordan Knight's "Give It To You," I think he still had a long way to go at that point. His first album, A Beautiful World, is hampered by incredibly weak vocals -- he was 25 when it was released, but sounds much younger, singing in a higher register than he often does now, without the confident falsetto he'd soon master. Other than the single "When I Get You Alone," there are only a couple songs off the album that I could stomach enough to include here.

Resurfacing as Robin Thicke a couple years later, he was embraced by big stars like Lil Wayne and Pharrell Williams, who signed him to Star Trak. But in the 7 years between his first Neptunes-produced single for Star Trak, "Wanna Love You Girl," and now "Blurred Lines," Thicke was largely left to his own devices to write and produce nearly all of his own records with frequent collaborator Pro J. And he got pretty good -- expanded vocal range, and a stylistic range that included '70s soul, piano ballads, and lush bossa nova like his urban radio breakthough, "Lost Without U." His voice still sounded thin at time, his lyrics occasionally bordered on ridiculous, and he wasn't exactly reinventing the wheel, but his talent was undeniable, and I think he's just gotten better over the course of his career. So until Blurred Lines arrives, here's a look at the best of the first five albums, as a Spotify playlist:

Deep Album Cuts Vol. 9: Robin Thicke

1. I Need Love
2. Sidestep
3. Never Give Up
4. Ask Myself
5. What Would I Be?
6. Something Else
7. Jus Right
8. Flowers In Bloom
9. Hard On My Love
10. Make U Love Me
11. Would That Make U Love Me
12. Teach U A Lesson
13. I Don't Know How It Feels To Be U
14. Shadow of Doubt
15. Brand New Luv
16. Compass Or Map
17. Loverman
18. I'm 'A Be Alright
19. An Angel On Each Arm
20. Complicated
21. Cry No More

Tracks 8 and 18 from A Beautiful World (2003)
Tracks 1, 4, 11, 12 and 20 from The Evolution of Robin Thicke (2006)
Tracks 2, 6, 9, 14, 17 and 21 and from Something Else (2008)
Tracks 7, 10 and 15 from Sex Therapy: The Experience (2009)
Tracks 3, 5, 13, 16 and 19 from Love After War (2011)

Clearly, my favorite of the bunch is Something Else, which was on my list of favorite albums of the 2000s. It's a concise, self-contained 12-track album (even Lil Wayne's "Tie My  Hands," tacked onto the end a few months after it appeared on Tha Carter III, functions well as a closing track), with a little more uptempo funk and disco and rock in the mix than on his other albums. But Love After War and The Evolution, though much longer and with more missteps, are also pretty great.

In my mind, the only major misstep of his Star Trak catalog is Sex Therapy, which before Blurred Lines was his only album full of big name outside producers (although the buzz on the new one is very positive, so I remain optimistic). Aside from the chart-topping title track produced by Polow Da Don, most of the album is just kind of a mess, with guest rappers like Kid Cudi and Game and Nicki Minaj clashing badly with Thicke's sound. The album came in two editions -- Sex Therapy: The Session is the shorter one comprised almost entirely of tracks with guests, and Sex Therapy: The Experience is the longer deluxe edition that adds a few Thicke/Pro J productions. Two of the three tracks I picked from that album are only on the latter version.

Previous playlists in the Deep Album Cuts series:
Vol. 1: Brandy
Vol. 2: Whitney Houston
Vol. 3: Madonna
Vol. 4: My Chemical Romance
Vol. 5: Brad Paisley
Vol. 6: George Jones
Vol. 7: The Doors
Vol. 8: Jay-Z
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