When you go to see a therapist, the first thing you might do is check his credentials. And Robin Thicke has got a whole wall’s worth of accolades to recommend him. He has won three Grammys. He’s written and produced for Michael Jackson, Lil’ Wayne, Mary J. Blige, Christina Aguilera, Pink, Marc Anthony and Jennifer Hudson, and has ultimately contributed to over 40 gold and platinum records by other artists. His breakthrough single, “Lost Without You,” and album, The Evolution of Robin Thicke, both joined the platinum club themselves. He’s toured with Beyonce, Mary J. Blige and Maxwell. And, in maybe the ultimate sign of pop-culture validation, he’s been a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s show three times. Is that board-certified enough for you?
If so, it may be time to submit to Sex Therapy: The Session. Not to sound too forward about it: We’re talking about the fourth album by Thicke, which takes a substantially different tack than any of his previous records, both musically and thematically. For the first time, Thicke is leavening his classic soul sound with more contemporary R&B, Rock, Electronic and hip-hop influences and collaborators—seen in the presence of guest artists like Jay-Z, Nikki Minaj, Kid Cudi, Estelle, Snoop Dogg, and Game. It’s also the first time he’s devoted an album’s narrative throughline quite so pointedly to the art and practice of… sexual healing.
“I was thinking of artists like R. Kelly, Jodeci, Mary J Blige, Prince, Biggie Smalls, and Marvin Gaye. I wanted to recreate a combination of the raw sensuality of R. Kelly’s 12 Play and the confidence and champagne celebration that the music of Uptown and Bad Boy Records created.”
“The album is about tension and release,” Thicke explains. “There’s all of the stress that we feel throughout the day, and you need something to release that tension. You need some good music and some good food, and you need your woman or your partner. The sex part is easy, but the therapy part is about love and about having somebody you can work through the tension with. And I have had somebody most of my life to work through the stress with, who’s my best friend. That’s why I realized as I’ve gotten older, more important than anything in my life—money, fame, celebrity, a nice house—what I really need is to have a great relationship and connection with my woman. And that comes from some sex therapy.”
“It’s tongue-in-cheek therapeutic. It’s not taking itself too seriously. But the album does feature instructions for the men and women on how to treat each other and how to make the night sexier—and especially for the men, how to worship the woman, how to tease her, how to tickle her, and how to kiss her correctly. There’s instructions to the sexiness.” The doctor is in!
“They’re all songs I wrote throughout this last year of my journey, and they were all incredibly honest to what I was feeling at the moment I wrote it,” he says. “I write about what my life is like at that time. And my life over the last year has been a lot of partying, a lot of fun, and a lot of stress and worrying about the future and money and relationships. So my wife and I have been focused on keeping our relationship sexy and hot and fresh, so we don’t lose the fire between each other, because that’s the only thing that makes the end of the day seem better: our connection with each other.”
There’s no denying that Sex Therapy: The Session has plenty of strains of contemporary R&B to accompany its sensual rest-and-relaxation themes. “It’s about the cultural things that connect me to the culture of hip-hop in America and how it influenced artists like myself and Justin and Britney. We’re all results of that influence. And this album is a dedication to all of those great hip-hop and soul artists that have inspired me,” Thicke says.
“Growing up in Los Angeles and going to a very racially mixed high school, I had a lot of different influences. I was listening to Jodeci and Mary J. Blige and NWA, and I was listening to gospel music. So I started a band, and the first song that I sang at my talent show in high school was R. Kelly’s ‘Your Body’s Calling Me.’ So this album reflects that more. After making my attempt at Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with my first album [2003’s A Beautiful World], and then my second album [2006’s The Evolution of Robin Thicke] being a very heartfelt, spiritual expression, then the last album [2008’s Something Else] being an ode to my favorite ‘70s music, this new album is really a testament to the hip-hop and soul music that has shaped myself and my generation.
Guest artists represent every corner of hip-hop and contemporary urban sounds, both musically and geographically: From the west coast, there’s Snoop Dogg and Game; from the Midwest, Kid Cudi; from the South, there’s Lil’ Wayne’s protégé, Nicki Minaj; from the east coast, Jay-Z, of course; and, representing international territories and flavors, England’s Estelle.
Sex Therapy: The Session has a tremendous variation in styles, from the De La Soul-goes-tropical feel of “Meiplé” (the album’s second single, which features Jay-Z) to the completely stripped down balladry of “2 Luv Birds.” But Thicke does mean for the album to hold together to tell a story. “To me, in the era of the DJ and of the playlist, it’s more important than ever the order that you put it in, so I tried to create a connected adventure, from the romance, to the danger, to the reconciliation.”
The album kicks off with “Mrs. Sexy,” where Thicke sings Erik B. & Rakim-style lyrics over an Al Green music bed with a D’Angelo-type vocal—“meshing three generations of music together,” as he puts it. “Sex Therapy,” the title track, combines “that manly edge of Jodeci with a seductive Prince vocal.” In “Meiplé,” “Jay-Z and I take the throwback hip-hop records of the ‘80s, like De La Soul and Slick Rick, and take our ladies on a shopping spree through France, where they will be treated like queens.” Naturally! “It’s in the Mornin,” produced by Riley and featuring Snoop, takes the classic hip-hop phrase “Six in the morning” and switches it to—not surprisingly—“Sex in the morning.”
Then there’s “Shakin’ it 4 Daddy,” (which features Nicki Minaj) an R. Kelly-meets-Usher party record that is Thicke’s Southern-style hip-hop homage to the strip club and nightclub generation. Not that he’s advocating wanton shakin’, mind you. “You’re only supposed to shake it for one daddy!” he asserts. “If you shake it for a bunch of daddies, that’s nasty. It’s not misogynistic, it’s warm-hearted, and really about my wife shakin’ it for her husband. If my wife comes in the room and she shakes it for daddy, trust me, the night is gonna go very well.”
The album takes a slightly darker turn in its middle act, with “Elevators.” “That’s about the dark side of the clubs and partying, of the drugs and the sexuality, and how you can get caught up and fall victim to it. I’m trying to make sure that I don’t fall down the wrong path, and I need my woman to make sure I don’t lose my way. So Kid Cudi and I fall down the rabbit hole into the dark hallways. And the track is just this wild musical adventure.” Next, “Roller Coaster,” with Estelle, “is really about that slap-me-in-the-face, punch-me-in-the-eye stuff. It’s all about the ups and downs of a relationship that you can’t seem to get away from, no matter how tough it gets. “Million Dollar Baby” completes this trilogy of more troubled songs, using, appropriately enough, the music bed from Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” (played by Robin’s band, not sampled). With Jazmine Sullivan singing background, Thicke sings about needing Lady Luck to get his life back on track.
Sex Therapy: The Session ends with an upswing, starting with “2 Luv Birds,” which is “true to my life story, about the ups and downs of a relationship, not wanting to let go, and finding love for a lifetime.” The finale, “Diamonds,” has Game putting down a rap about his personal life and struggles, though it’s really more an ode to womanhood. “We name off a lot of the black women that are diamonds—like Oprah, Michelle Obama, Halle Berry, Mary J. Blige, Aretha Franklin, and my wife, Paula—because the pressure that they went through turned them into diamonds.”
If you only heard the album’s initial singles, the temptation might be to assume that the heightened sexuality means this is a less personal album for Thicke than, say, the more obviously introspective Evolution of Robin Thicke album. But as the new album’s eventual trajectory makes clear, that’s hardly the case.
Thicke’s wife, Paula Patton, is a staple of the movies, of course, and seen most recently in Precious, which many are calling a front-runner for a best picture nomination. Now, after years of begging off acting offers, because he didn’t feel he could handle two careers at once, Thicke has just signed on with Fox for a feature film that is due out in 2011. “Now just seems like a natural time to do it,” he explains. “I’m more comfortable in front of a camera, and a little more over myself, so I’m not so worried about taking myself too seriously. Screw it—why not try it all at once?”
There’s plenty of other extracurricular work, including a featured appearances on Gossip Girl star Leighton Meester’s first single. “Somebody to Love” (and in the video), as well as appearances on Rick Ross’ and R. Kelly’s new albums, and ongoing collaborations with old pal Lil’ Wayne.
But despite all that side work, Thicke is hardly neglecting his own music career right now, as the care and craft put into Sex Therapy: The Session will attest. Promoting it out of the gate is a video for the title song, which the singer describes as “a combination of Eyes Wide Shut and Madonna’s ‘Justify My Love.’ It’s supposed to represent those parties that you wish you could be invited to, that you always hear exist, but we never get invited to.”
As for the album’s blood-red cover motif, Thicke explains, “We started out with this doctor theme, trying to play the sex therapist, and then it just kind of turned into the James Bond version of the therapist.” He laughs. “It was James Bond meets Sigmund Freud.” Looking into his eyes on that cover, fans will get the message: The doctor will see you now.