The lane for incredibly smooth, blue-eyed-soul singers with urban radio and hip-hop co-signs is really more like a narrow bike path. For years, it's basically been dominated by two men: Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke.
Yet, up until this summer, they've mostly peaked at different times and rarely gone head-to-head, in spite of the fact that both launched solo careers in 2002. Suddenly though, Timberlake and Thicke traffic is bumper-to-bumper. Credit goes to a couple of ubiquitous hits and the best-selling album of 2013 so far for Justin, and the by-a-mile frontrunner for biggest single of the summer courtesy of Robin.
"Justin is a global superstar and outside of the aesthetic and the tone of their voices, that's where the comparison [with Robin Thicke] begins and also where it stops," said Vibe editor in chief Jermaine Hall of Timberlake, who's vying for a leading six Moonmen at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.
"But when you speak to them, a lot of the acts they idolized growing up [are similar], very traditional R&B singers," Hall continued. "If you look at what Justin is able to do as a complete artist, he has a lot more factors going for him than Robin Thicke."
Neither artist has every really copped to feeling a rivalry and Hall said there's no reason why they can't co-exist and not cancel each other out. "There's enough room for both of them to be successful ... which is what you're seeing right now," he said.
There may be room for both, but only one man can be the King of Summer. So who'll take the crown? MTV News runs down the stats:
The Numbers Game
Timberlake: Timberlake's "Mirrors" has 79.9 million YouTube views and 2.4 million in digital single sales, according to figures provided by Nielsen SoundScan, and it peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. "Suit & Tie" has 44.3 million views and 2.6 million in sales (peaking at #3 on the charts), while the explicit clip for "Tunnel Vision" has already racked up 5 million and 44,000 in sales. The 20/20 Experience has moved just under 2.1 million copies so far. (All figures are as of July 24.)
Thicke: To date, the unrated version of "Blurred Lines" has been viewed 2.8 million times on YouTube and the edited version has been seen 105.5 million times. "Lines" has also hit #1 in 40 countries (including the U.S.), giving Thicke his biggest pop crossover success ever, with single sales topping 3.6 million to date.
If you're sick of it, well, even Robin knows his breakthrough is the "unavoidable" song of the summer. "Even if you don't want it to be," Thicke told MTV News, noting that he'd never refer to himself as the "king" of summer. "But I will say it's nice after all these years of making music for people to know who you are and say 'good song' or shout from their windows as you're driving by, 'Hey, man, love that song, love that video.' I haven't gotten a lot of that in my career so I'm just enjoying the love."
What About Your (Famous) Friends?
Timberlake: When you're the go-to voice of your generation, you don't have to go far to find collaborators. In addition to an enduring association with Timbaland, Justin roped in Jigga for "Suit & Tie" and producer Jerome "J-Roc" Harmon (Keri Hilson, Chris Brown) as a co-producer on The 20/20 Experience. Unlike previous efforts, though, the guest list on Experience was pretty tight. At press time, it's unknown who'll join him for the sequel album, The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2, due out September 30.
Thicke: Smash hit "Blurred Lines" boasts assists from another man of the summer, Pharrell Williams, as well as T.I. Thicke said he's also got tracks on tap from heavy hitters Dr. Luke (on new single "Give it 2 U" with Kendrick Lamar), will.i.am, (frequent JT collaborator) Timbaland and J-Roc. Plus, he kept it in the family and co-wrote a tune with his famous TV actor dad, Alan, called "Ain't No Hat 4 That."
Timberlake: Justin is tied with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis for the most bids at the August 25 show at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. His striking "Mirrors" clip earned noms for Video of the Year, Best Male Video, Best Pop Video and Best Editing, while "Suit & Tie" was noticed for Best Collaboration and Best Direction. If he wins, JT will add to his already impressive pile of seven previous Moonmen.
Thicke: The video for the NSFW summer smash "Blurred Lines" is up against "Mirrors" for Video of the Year, with further noms for Best Male Video and Best Collaboration. Thicke was nominated for the Male Artist of the Year VMA in 2007, but is still waiting for his first Moonman.
Timberlake: We're not sure how long JT was working on the just-dropped, artsy video for his third single, "Tunnel Vision," but with its copious female nudity, the Internet was quick to note how similar the NSFW clip is to Thicke's breakthrough "Lines" clip. Unlike Thicke, though, Justin's video stayed on YouTube because the site deemed it "artistic."
Thicke: Robin scored his biggest video and radio hit with the risqué "Lines," which is packed with casual female toplessness.
"I wrote the idea as a nude video and refused to do the job when they said they didn't want a nude version, that no one would see it," director Diane Martel explained to MTV News about the visuals. "A week went by and they begged me to do it and said I could do a nude version if I also did them a favor and did a dressed version. I like both versions now. I think Robin likes both, too; we all do."
A YouTube ban only helped fuel the fire, when, with little fanfare, the explicit version was added back to YouTube in early July. Robin recently told MTV News that he's working on a sequel with Martel for the Lamar and 2 Chainz-assisted "Give it 2 U."
Not for nothing, but Thicke also told MTV News he's trying to rope in President Obama for the "Give It" video ... or maybe just some water sports. "We're thinking about coming up with a synchronized swimming thing, where 2 Chainz and Kendrick do some leg kicks and maybe some flips in the water," Thicke joked.
The Road Ahead
Timberlake: JT is hitting the road with pal Jay Z for the Legends of the Summer stadium tour in July and August. Then he's on to a solo tour in the fall to celebrate the release of his second album of 2013, with dates currently scheduled to last through February.
Thicke: Though the Blurred Lines album drops on July 30, Thicke recently told Billboard that he's going to be on the promotional trail through the end of 2013 and will not put on a "real" tour in the U.S. until next year. In the meantime, he's been promoting the album in late night, in radio interviews like the BBC Radio appearance where he poured his brown liquor Swagu on Icona Pop's breakup anthem "I Love It."