After trying to decipher Pharrell Williams’ complex musical mind through his extremely busy two decade journey, I am honestly baffled, at least to a certain degree. Maybe I should just conclude that Pharrell is simply a happy man who has an uncanny knack for shaping sonic grooves and sprinkling whatever else is needed to bring happiness to other artists. Since launching his career with producer Teddy Riley for Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker,” Pharrell has masterminded the art of minimalist hip-hop and pop beats, experimental remixes (i.e. “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones) and dropping soulful falsetto hooks since 1992 his production ‘baby,’ The Neptunes, with childhood friend Chad Hugo; their extended list of satisfied customers can attest to this.
While The Neptunes and Pharrell catered more to the streetwise urban market, from SWV and Kelis to Snoop Dogg (“Beautiful”), Jay-Z, (“Frontin’”) and Nelly (“Hot in Herre”), their magnetic grooves also translated well with pop divas like Britney Spears and Gloria Estefan who scored with two number #1 pop and dance hits, “I’m a Slave 4 U” and “Wepa,” respectively.
Gifted with a multi-tasking production mind, Pharrell formed N.E.R.D. (with Hugo and Shay Haley) in 2001 as another creative outlet where he happily channeled and explored more of his inner rock side. Whether it was the ‘60s flavor of “Provider,” the ‘90s industrial flair of “Rock Star,” or the funk-frosted “She Wants to Move” and “Hot-n-Fun”—the latter featuring Nelly Furtado, the non-conforming appeal of N.E.R.D won over international audiences with their first three self-produced CDs, including Fly or Die, eventually breaking the group into the Top 50 charts in several countries. With those countless accomplishments under N.E.R.D. and The Neptunes, Pharrell was unquestionably the man in charge of those group efforts.
In between his ventures with N.E.R.D. and The Neptunes, Pharrell finally recorded his solo debut in 2006, In My Mind, garnering nominations for a Grammy and the German-based ECHO Awards. Once again, Pharrell was fully content in delivering his chilled out, yet sometimes uneven falsetto vocals, raps, and sonic hip-hop soundscapes, along with close friends Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z and Kanye West.
Though still cranking out urban music like an assembly line, the Grammy-winning Producer of the Year is now celebrating a new level of happy by savoring an extremely commercially successful 2013, collaborating on R&B/pop multi-platinum joints, “Get Lucky” with Daft Punk and Robin Thicke’s breakout moment, “Blurred Lines.” But, the icing on Pharrell’s forty something cake is the international platinum smash hit “Happy” from the soundtrack, Despicable Me 2, inspiring the first 24-hour video focusing on celebrity dancing madness from Jimmy Kimmel to Jamie Foxx. Understandably, “Happy” is also the lead single off Pharrell’s sophomore release, Girl.
Though Pharrell’s familiar falsetto, laid back vocals and beats galore are evident throughout Girl, he forsakes the hip-hop elements and talent from In My Mind, leaning more toward a mainstream pop approach, accented with sometimes grandiose, yet inviting orchestrations. Case in point, “Marilyn Monroe,” opening with a symphonic overture before transitioning into a funky pop dance groove that fully cry out Justin Timberlake. The South African-like chants and percussion completely dominate “Lost Queen,” where Pharrell shows off his understated humor.
Timberlake is one of the guests on Girl who clicks with Pharrell for the organic “Brand New,” a bumpy, funkified ride driven by brass, guitars, snares and congas. “Come Get It Bae” thrives on Missy Elliott’s electronic funk workout, “Work It,” with catchy guitar hooks and throbbing synth bass. However, Miley Cyrus weighs down the otherwise engaging grooves with weak breakdowns and a stale hook. Alicia Keys fares slightly better with “Know Who You Are,” a rootsy, reggae flavored song of encouragement to the ladies. Yet, her sturdier pipes way out shadow Pharrell’s too relaxed vocals. “Gust of Wind” accentuates the atmosphere with Daft Punk deep robotic soul from “Get Lucky” and Pharrell’s vocal charm, which is an absolute solid marriage made in old school funk heaven.
The retro soul feel continues with “Gush,” highlighted by a refreshing breakdown of a cello solo and a bed of gorgeous strings and piano riffs. Unfortunately, there is a serious disruption, “Hunter,” where the experimental attempt goes off track with a rap chorus that comes off corny and insipid. Thankfully, the closing track, “It Girl,” redeems the flow with a fascinating climatic buzz guitar solo and Pharrell manipulating his falsetto in a curious, yet good way.
The pop/R&B radio accessibility for Girl should way surpass In My Mind. Though Girl has its share of noticeable drawbacks, especially with Pharrell’s vocal pitch and depth, the content by far offers a stronger musicality than his predecessor. His loyal international fan base echoes this sentiment, placing Girl as the number #1 album in several countries. But, long after Girl will be an afterthought, Pharrell strikes me as an always happy camper when the next collaboration or production party arise. Somewhat Recommended.
By Peggy Oliver