Pharrell, ‘G I R L’ [ALBUM REVIEW]
If taking artistic detours and musical diversity had a mascot it would be Pharrell Williams. His sophomore studio album, ‘G I R L,’ is proof of that.
In 2014, Pharrell — the artist not just the producer — is a household name, but it’s been a long, windy road to the top for Skateboard P. From his days as a ghost producer for Teddy Riley to the rise of the Neptunes as production powerhouse in the late ’90s and early aughts, to his 2006 solo debut ‘In My Mind’ — Pharrell’s visibility has steadily increased but he’s never been front and center in the spotlight the way he is now. Indeed, 2013 was the tipping point for Pharrell the solo act and superstar but his ascendance wasn’t as linear as you’d think.
In comparison to the earlier part of the decade, between 2008 and 2012, Pharrell had very little stake in the pop charts, which at that point were encompassing of all genres. The Virginia native wasn’t less brilliant for it, he just took a couple of detours producing for Madonna, Scissor Sisters, Adam Lambert, Shakira and even Gloria Estefan. By 2010, he ventured into a new lane by writing, performing, producing and composing for the animated film ‘Despicable Me.’
In 2013, after collaborating with Daft Punk on ‘Hypnotize U‘ for N.E.R.D’s 2010 album ‘Nothing,’ they teamed up again and the Grammy Award-winning song ‘Get Lucky’ was born. With Robin Thicke, he made the contentious ‘Blurred Lines.’ ‘Despicable Me’ eventually sprouted a sequel leading Pharrell to make the jovial, bouncy, ‘Happy.’ The trifecta was complete.
During that time, Pharrell’s expression of ideas shifted. His collective, I Am Other, brings fashion, artistry and politics together for inspirational ingestion. Even his lyrics on ‘Get Lucky’ demonstrate a profound spirituality, “Like the legend of the phoenix, our ends were beginnings / What keeps the planet spinning, the force from the beginning.” His explanation for it expands from the sexual nature of the song. “Getting lucky is not just sleeping with her, but meeting someone for the first time and it just clicking. There’s no better fortune in this existence, to me,” he said in an interview. ‘Happy,’ his new album’s default first single, is anthemic for Pharrell in that it brings into full fruition his new level of consciousness.
Watch Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ Video
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That song sets the tone for the new album. The astronomically braggadocious nature of ‘In My Mind’ is totally out of the window on ‘G I R L.’ The synthy nature of Skateboard P’s production still prevails but is now married to disco — a descendent of funk and a parent of today’s pop music. The first three tracks on ‘G I R L’ — ‘Marilyn Monroe’ ‘Brand New’ and ‘Hunter’ — are glaring examples of this unabashed fusion.
‘Marilyn Monroe’ opens with, and sustains, quick pulsing strings throughout the song. Pharrell muses with lyrics declaring that there is no comparison between his girl and Monroe, Cleopatra and Joan of Arc. It has to be noted that one of hip-hop’s legendary producers now has a song in which he sings, “Dear diary, it’s happening again…”
Familiar collaborator Justin Timberlake is enlisted for ‘Brand New’ and it begins almost exactly like Michael Jackson’s ‘Working Day and Night,’ with beatboxing by Timbaland. On this track, Pharrell and JT, who both have brand new wives, look for women who make them feel brand new.
Funk guitars and minimalist production make ‘Hunter’ a gem, with lyrics like, “’Duck Dynasty”s cool and all but they got nothin’ on a female’s call …” and a rap by Pharrell that recalls memories of Blondie’s Debbie Harry rapping on ‘Rapture.’
‘In My Mind’ had features from Slim Thug, Jay-Z, Pusha T and Nelly while ‘G I R L’ gives the ladies — JoJo, Alicia Keys and Miley Cyrus — face time. The three collaborations demonstrate two common interactions with women: the encouraging kind and the seductive kind.
On ‘Freq,’ Pharrell coos, “Just picture the love, it’s picking you up.” JoJo and his I Am Other artist, Leah Labelle, join the singer here. A steadily pulsing beat builds while the ladies sing in perfect harmony with Pharrell as they roll out another nugget of wisdom: “I’d rather be a freak than not be unique, individuality makes life better.” This song flows perfectly with ‘Take It From Here,’ his 2002 collaboration on Justin Timberlake’s solo debut, ‘Justified.’
The Alicia Keys duet, ‘Know Who You Are,’ with a firmly patterned plucking guitar and keys, has Pharrell singing, “Bad day, at work, crazy boss, crazy or worse …” The song is an empathetic and encouraging approach to women’s outer and internal struggles. Keys’ vocals are on a register where her beautiful tone overrules the strained-vocal tendencies she’s developed since 2007’s ‘No One.’
‘Come Get It Bae,’ which offers an assist from Miley Cyrus, finds Pharrell flexing a little bit of swag muscle singing, “None of them boys know the first thing about your fantasy / And if they tried, they can not do it just like me.” This song is reminiscent of a western-inspired hoedown, a track in which Cyrus knows her place. There’s no trace of her spotlight-stealing ways even as she takes on the bridge with, “There comes a time, the craving will grab your wrist / You’ll need a sugar fix, baby.” Even then, this is the less enthralling track of the entire album — slightly off theme and redundant with similarities to ‘4X4,’ one of Pharrell’s contributions to Miley’s ‘Bangerz’ album.
As imaginative as Pharrell’s production is, there are moments of redundancy. ‘It Girl’ closes out the solo effort, perfectly summarizing the project’s theme. “You the it girl, my inspiration” and “And hold my hand, and moan again / I’ma hold that ass,” are just some of the lyrics. For new Pharrell listeners, this one might be a novice sound, but any N.E.R.D. fan will get hints of the band’s ‘Wonderful Place’ from 2004’s ‘Ride or Die’ album.
Aside from ‘Come Get It Bae,’ there’s another seeming thematic disparity on ‘G I R L.’ ‘Gush‘ is an ode to a woman’s, well, womanhood. The opener alone, “Make the p—- just gush,” over guitars and drums, is just enough to pull the the listener in. The chorus kicks with “I could be the guy to treat you to a nice movie, feed you / But I don’t wanna mislead you / Tonight I think I wanna be dirty, girl.” Foolish of anyone to think that Pharrell’s theme of women appreciation would result in him straying from this aspect — even if it means singing, “Light that ass on fire.”
‘Gust of Wind‘ reunites Daft Punk and Pharrell once more. The track’s stark resemblance to ‘Get Lucky’ and ‘Lose Yourself to Dance’ is apparent, but it’s a marker for his ability to encapsulate sonic feeling with words. The verses, pre-hook, hook and bridges all soar from the speakers with the help of rapid strings. The robots are Auto-Tuned to the max when they sing, “Like a gust of wind, you remind me there’s someone up there who washes in the air / I need to power my sail,” but the feeling isn’t lost.
Here, there are remnants of his past works with other artists, but it is something only deliverable by Pharrell himself. His talent and strength for melody and harmonies are finally laid out on the table for his own use. ‘G I R L’ is the album Pharrell should have made back in 2006.
Aside from the fact that ‘G I R L’ is a musical contagion, the most interesting fact is his confession to Pitchfork about the effort. “If I was left to my own devices, I would not have elected to do [‘G I R L’].” Even though it was an afterthought for the Grammy Award-winning entertainer, ‘G I R L’ came together through years of collaborations with new and established artists, side projects, new ventures and reinvention. It’s exactly like the Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Pharrell’s never been lucky, only prepared.