Robin Thicke, Something Else (Star Trak)

Robin Thicke doesn’t possess the best voice in R&B but he uses what he’s got better than most. His favored falsetto has obvious influences — a little Marvin, some Smokey, even a touch of pre-tabloid Jacko. Yet, at its most wispy, its fragility is less bare-chested soul and more sensitive folk rocker, ala Elliot Smith or Nick Drake. On songs like the post-break-up denouement “Cry No More,” the gentle strands of his voice melt into the track’s delicate guitar strums; Thicke has a strong awareness of his instrument and how best to wield it.

His smooth tenor is usually reserved for more uptempo songs and there are a few competent ones in the mix: “Magic” is a vigorous groover with its piercing strings and brass workout; while “Sidestep” updates – and redeems – the funky undertones of ‘70s yacht rock (this is a good thing, really). Other dance tracks misfire: “Shadow of Doubt” sledgehammers its hook home obnoxiously while the title song hews too closely to the excesses of the late disco-era that inspires it; all gloss, not enough substance.

Thicke’s gifts really lie with his slow jams. He’s always had a penchant for their subtler textures, and Something Else offers a bounty of beautifully crafted ballads. His sweetest confection is “Ms. Harmony,” a bossa nova-flavored blend of dreamy guitar melodies, Latin percussion and Thicke’s own, mojito-cool vocals. More provocative is “Dreamworld,” with its swampy thump and lyrics that mix folksy platitudes with sneak doses of social content: “the ice caps wouldn’t be melting/and neither would I.” (The heart’s in the right place but the songwriting isn’t always).

It may be surprising to learn that Something Else is Thicke’s third album — he’s been an impressive presence as a producer and cameo guest (he and rapper Lil Wayne make an unlikely but effective duo) but his solo work has been undervalued. That deserves to change now. Compared to Solange Knowles’ likable but transparently retro-soul outing or Jennifer Hudson’s surprisingly sterile and inert debut, Thicke showcases what a mature, self-assured command of style can achieve: an album of protean sounds and moods, tied together through a voice that can speak loudest when it whispers. — Oliver Wang

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