Robin Thicke. Photo by Michelle.

It’s always nice when the public catches up with an artist or band that you’ve been singing the praises of forever. I’ve been on the Robin Thicke bandwagon for almost a decade now. From hearing the masterful job he did co-writing and producing Jordan Knight’s 1999 solo debut to his 2003 debut “A Beautiful World”, I’ve thought that the soul-singing son of TV stars Alan Thicke and Gloria Loring had the goods.

The rest of the country took a little longer to catch on.

2006’s sophomore album, The Evolution of Robin Thicke, took a few months to take off, but wound up becoming one of the following year’s surprise successes. Bolstered by the pretty love song Lost Without U (not to mention some Oprah love), Evolution sold nearly two million copies and made Thicke one of the hottest R&B singers around. A few factors made his success even more surprising. One quite obviously being the color of his skin. Thicke joined Teena Marie and a handful of others to become a white R&B star who did not cross over into the pop arena. To wit “Lost” spent 11 weeks at the top of the R&B chart but didn’t even hit the top 10 on the pop charts. The other main factor was that he was a self-contained musician, writing, producing and playing the majority of his work in a manner that’s fairly uncommon among today’s male R&B singers. Only John Legend managed the same amount of success with similar skills.

Now a freshly minted star, Thicke makes his return two years after his career breakthrough with Something Else. On one hand, Thicke played it safe. If you enjoyed the music on “Evolution”, you’ll enjoy the music here. A couple of songs feature the same light, semi-acoustic touch and sweet falsetto as “Lost Without U”. However, this album only features almost no hip-hop influence, only one guest rapper, no samples, and is almost completely played on live instruments. There are no songs featuring Ne-Yo, T-Pain or Timbaland-making this an anomaly among recent albums by popular artists in the R&B genre.

While you won’t find anything revelatory on Something Else, the album is enjoyable pretty much straight through. One thing that strikes me as different from the last album and this one is that the best tracks are the ones that have a little bit of groove to them. First single Magic adds sprightly horns and strings to a head-bobbing groove, while Sidestep has a similar Seventies/live band flair. If you added in a dance instructional, it could challenge R. Kelly’s Step in the Name of Love for black family barbecue supremacy.

One thing you’ll also notice is that Thicke has a bit more of a social conscience than the average contemporary R&B singer. The mournful Tie My Hands (originally featured on Lil’ Wayne’s blockbuster “Carter III” album) is a highlight, and actually causes me to give slightly reluctant props to Weezy as a storyteller. The bluesy Dreamworld imagines a utopian world of sorts, where Marvin Gaye’s father never meant for him to die, a thousand bucks would magically fall from the sky and he could walk down the street in Mississippi with his (very very fine) wife Paula Patton and no one would give them a second look for being an interracial couple. It’s a little on the hippy-dippy side, but it’s nice to hear someone in R&B thinking about something other than rub-a-dubbing in the club or knocking boots, y’know?

Not that there’s not plenty of lovemakin’ going on here. Loverman’s wall of vocals and Thicke’s slightly scratchy falsetto gives the song a very strong Marvin Gaye feel, while The Sweetest Love’s key changes and romantic lyric is reminiscent of some of the best work from DeBarge and sister group Switch, mixed with a little Stevie Wonder. Actually (and I’ve mentioned this before), if you were to compare Thicke to anyone vocally (especially when he glides into falsetto), El DeBarge is the first name that comes to mind.

One thing that will definitely get Thicke a little bit of guff is that, in similar fashion to Lenny Kravitz, he wears his influences on his sleeve. In addition to Gaye and DeBarge, there are songs on this album that strongly reference Curtis Mayfield (the aforementioned Magic and the “Pusherman”-esque Hard on My Love) and “Off the Wall”-era Michael Jackson (the title track). He does a good job on all of these songs, but it would be nice if he melded these influences into a little more of his own sound instead of making his influences so obvious.

The way I see it, though, that’s a minor quibble. Something Else is yet another enjoyable effort from Thicke. Not every song here is consistent in quality with the rest of the album-opening ballad You’re My Baby gets the album off to a boring start, and the rock-ish Shadow of Doubt is a bit awkward-but the album maintains a fairly high level of quality throughout. With new albums also on the way from the likes of John Legend and Anthony Hamilton and recent solid sets from Thicke, Ne-Yo and Raphael Saadiq, 2008 looks like it’s ending on a much better note than it began with reference to soul music.