Somewhere, there are people who can’t stand Pharrell Williams. Can’t stand the optimism, which can presumably only come when you’re counting Williams’ kind of do-re-mi. Can’t stand that squeaky-clean (but mostly just squeaky) voice. This observer isn’t a bad person; it’s just that he — and that’s the correct pronoun in probably nine of ten cases — doesn’t know how to have fun. In 2013, the 40-year-old Williams was so productive that he became the new favorite artist of thousands of listeners before they had a chance to realize it — all of them sublimated by, at least, his glossy production, whether on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”, or 2 Chainz’s “Feds Watching”, which renovated the boarded windows of trap-rap and replaced them with gorgeous stained glass. It’s simple, then: Those who aren’t giving Williams the time of day are missing out on some of the richest, most tasteful pop of a generation. And G I R L, his first solo album since 2006’s In My Mind, is 47 more minutes to back that up.
In August 2003, a survey found that Virginia Beach production duo The Neptunes, one part Williams and one part Chad Hugo, were responsible for 43% of the songs on pop radio. As far as dumbfounding statistics go, that’s up there with the death toll of the Black Plague and Tiger Woods’ winning percentage in 2000. But, for a little while after, Pharrell was a nonfactor, appearing only two or three times a year on singles that never reached the success he routinely found a decade ago. People forgot about him. Recently, a high school senior I know referred to him as “Snoop Dogg’s old sidekick,” thinking of his eely vocals and tongue-clicks on Snoop’s 2004 smash, “Drop It Like It’s Hot”. When Williams performed before the NBA All-Star Game a couple weekends ago, though — a performance as exciting as anything at All-Star Weekend and certainly better than the regular season action seen at Smoothie King Arena of late — it was jarring how little his 2013 hits factor into his entire oeuvre. Regardless, his modern era is his best yet.
The lead single from G I R L, the hand-clappy Oscar nom “Happy”, like James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” and Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” before it, is almost overwhelmingly positive. And everyone, from kindergarten teachers, to the pop listeners of Poland, to your reviewer, kinda loves it. When it plays during Despicable Me 2, Gru, the bodily disproportionate main character voiced by Steve Carell, is flipping heart-shaped pancakes and high-fiving random pedestrians on the sidewalk, drunk in love with the redheaded Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig). Let’s just say all of it fits the song snugly.
Despicable Me 2, by the way, is rated PG, the biggest reason being the innuendo that occurs when two of the yellow, capsule-shaped “minions” wink at Lucy, implying what would no doubt be anatomically problematic relations (woman + robot). G I R L, meanwhile, an album mostly about women, is rated PG-13 for mild language and sexual references: “Light that ass on fire,” “Get dirty, girl,” and most memorably, “Make the pussy gush.” (For what it’s worth, Williams put a ring on Helen Lasichanh last year.) During its more specialized moments, G I R L evokes specific celebrations of womanhood in pop culture; the brass-blanketed Justin Timberlake collaboration “Brand New”, for instance, has me thinking of the mambo in West Side Story. The opening song here, meanwhile, is called “Marilyn Monroe”, and it’s a tribute to the power more than the beauty of Monroe, Joan of Arc, and Cleopatra.
G I R L follows Janelle Monáe’s 2013 LP, The Electric Lady, as a love letter to musical innovations of the ‘70s, a smattering of psych-soul, funk, and even disco squeegeed of all powdery excess. The panting and Prince-ly “Gush”, with its string-snapping licks, is nearly offset by the cornball Duck Dynasty and “I’m a hunter” business; the instrumentation, however, ultimately salvages the ill-fated conceits. When the album is otherwise sparse in decor, as on the negative-space slider “Lost Queen”, backup singers and multiple Pharrells scurry around the mix. It’s true, though, that Williams struggles to cull anything particularly fresh from his major collaborators here (Miley, JT, Alicia). That is, except for Daft Punk, whose “Gust of Wind” makes use of a bracing vocal effect comparable to Kavinsky’s “Nightcall”.
Before the new GQ profile divulged that Williams’ favorite book is The Alchemist — the 1988 Paulo Coelho novel many of us begrudgingly read for school, but wound up really enjoying — I was already going to make a joke predicting that very preference. It fits Williams’ personality perfectly. The book is about the long and particularly sandy journey a young, naive Andalusian shepherd makes in hope of finding treasure in Egypt. Given his lack of solo success pre-“Happy” (he’d never had a No. 1 hit under his own name, and this album potentially has three or four more) you could argue that G I R L was always a destination for Williams, even when he vowed he wouldn’t make another solo record. Pharrell’s voice is still going to bother certain people, and it might get especially grating for them here, as when he takes it to its most fragile heights on “The Hunter”. They should get used to it right now, though, because they’re about to be hearing it more than ever.
Essential Tracks: “Happy”, “Gust of Wind”