Every music genre needs a king or queen and this week we’re looking at R&B, that classic rhythm and blues. Previous holders of the title include legends like Ray Charles, Marvin Gay, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown. Let’s welcome this year’s contenders.
In the left corner, we have Robin Thicke, a relative newcomer but no stranger to the world of R&B. Before taking the stage, Thicke wrote songs for Brandy, Mya, Jordan Knight, and Christina Aguilera. In 2002, he released his first single from A Beautiful World, “When I Get You Alone,” that got some success in the charts (#49 on Radio and Records and #3 in Belgium) but was made a hit in 2007, when sung by Blake Lewis on American Idol. Later, he put out several albums including ‘The Evolution of Robin Thicke‘ (number #1 on Billboard R&B), ‘Something Else’ (number #3), ‘Sex Therapy’ (number #2), and ‘Love After War‘ (number #6). Though well known and beloved to the R&B crowd, Thicke received national recognition this year with his hit single, ‘Blurred Lines’, staying at number #1 for an impressive five weeks. His album of the same name received similar attention from both R&B and Pop audiences with a quarter-million albums sold in the first month.
And in the right corner, we’ve got Justin Timberlake, an established and well-known name in the top-40 circle. Previously a member of the estrogen-pumping boyband, *NSYNC, Timberlake went solo in 2002 with his Billboard-topping debut album ‘Justified‘. Hits like ‘Cry Me a River‘ propelled him to continue his career in the subsequent ‘FutureSex/LoveSounds’ (number #1 in the UK Album chart, US Billboard, and US Billboard R&B), much loved for the seductive single, ‘SexyBack‘. After an extended hiatus, he’s back with ‘The 20/20 Experience‘, kicking it off with ‘Suit and Tie‘ and more recently, ‘Mirrors‘, the latter snagging number #1 in the British charts for three weeks. He was highly favored at the MTV Music Awards, winning Video of the Year, as well as the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award for his career. Last month, he revealed the second part of The 20/20 Experience.
Both Thicke and Timberlake released well-received and successful albums, Blurred Lines and The 20/20 Experience. But in terms of style, while Timberlake’s known for his pop history, this year it’s Thicke who’s taking a swing for Pop’s attention. He’s got a fuller Big Band sound that adds interest, as in ‘Blurred Lines’, and hints of Latin, Funk, and Disco influences, particularly seen in ‘No Hat for That’. Additionally, he’s introduced rap into his R&B with features from Pharrell, T.I., and Kendrick Lamar. Timberlake’s gone for a smoother texture that at times is a bit bland, particularly since all his songs are approximately eight minutes long. ‘Let the Groove get In‘ is an exception to the long drawn-out notes found throughout the album, and the second half of ‘Strawberry Bubblegum’ is an enjoyable reminiscence of his “pop” past with a classic R&B mixer.
Lyrics. This is where I throw my hands up in disgust. There is a distinct lack of lyrical subtlety in both these albums leaving little to the listeners’ imagination. Hint: they’re talking about sex. Timberlake is slightly better at lyrically seducing his audience, specifically with ‘Mirrors‘, probably because it was dedicated to his grandparents. However, Thicke shouting about his impressive family jewels makes me want to listen to a chainsaw quintet to forget I ever listened to it. Also, I’m not even going to start on certain questionable lyrics in Blurred Lines.
Album Cohesiveness. Whilst Thicke has done a good job in trying to reel in several other genres to catch attention, the album as a whole sounds like a mess. He goes from one style to another with little transition between tunes. The listener is unprepared when a pop beat is followed by smooth soul. Timberlake masters this concept in such a way that one can interpret the album as a full song itself. An album is a work of art and without some connection, it crumbles. While ‘The 20/20 Experience’ is standing tall, ‘Blurred Lines‘ struggles to glue the pieces together.
Reception. To be a King in the music world, you have to win not only the records, but the hearts of your listeners. While critics applaud both Blurred Lines and The 20/20 Experience, sales tell another story. In a month after The 20/20 Experience’s release, Timberlake sold approximately 1.5 million records. Thicke sold 250,000. However, Thicke’s single Blurred Lines had the top selling single as of 3 October, with 1.36 million copies. However, with the recent Blurred Lines music video/lyric/MTV Music Awards controversy, you’d be hard-pressed to find many people admittedly cranking up that tune. No such complaints about Timberlake.
So here we come to the final countdown. While it’s cut closer than I ever imagined, the crown can only go to one king. For an impressive legacy, a smooth and cohesive style, and lyrics that don’t make me spit out my tea, I crown Justin Timberlake, 2013’s King of R&B.
Written by Brittany Burns