Pharrell’s Difference is Finally Mainstream with G I R L
Written in March 2014
Different. That’s the first word Pharrell Williams utters on his latest album, G I R L in the song “Marilyn Monroe.” The song opens with an array of strings and violins courtesy of friend and acclaimed movie scorer, Hans Zimmer, reminiscent of Justin Timberlake’s “Pusher Love Girl” produced by Timbaland and Jerome Harmon. Pharrell has always been different. From the ice cream cone logos on his Billionaire Boy’s Club clothing line to rocking snowboard boots like sneakers, he’s never been afraid to stand out. At this year’s Academy Awards the twenty-looking 40 year-old showed more leg than Hollywood’s leading actresses. His wife, Helen Lasichanh wore a tuxedo. And then there’s that Smokey the Bear hat he’s been wearing lately, which sparked a parody account on Twitter and was recently auctioned off through its logo doppelgänger, Arby’s.
The brew of R&B, funk, and pop that is G I R L is just his second solo album since 2006’s In My Mind. Eight years between albums seems long but Pharrell’s been a very busy man ever since he and his long time musical partner Chad Hugo started making beats or “seeing sounds” as they put it, in Virginia Beach. As signees to Teddy Riley’s label, Pharrell and Chad called themselves The Neptunes and had production credits on Wreckx-N-Effect's 1992 New Jack Swing jam, “Rump Shaker” and continued making names for themselves producing on Harlem rapper, Mase’s 1997 hit “Lookin’ at Me.”
By the start of the new millennium “The Neptunes sound” – rapid-fire drums, keys, and bongos sprinkled on top of thumping bass lines - was firmly established. In 2001 Pharrell, Chad, and their friend Shay Haley created their own neo-rock/alternative band, N*E*R*D (No one Ever Really Dies) and released their debut album, In Search Of… containing fan-favorites songs, “Lapdance” and “Rock Star.” They also established their own label division, StarTrak, and signed the VA rapping brother duo, The Clipse (Pusha T and Malice) and R&B singers, Kelise and Robin Thicke. Soon “The Neptunes sound” became the opus for each year’s chart-topping hit.
Remember Jay Z’s “Give It 2 Me” and Britney Spears’s “I’m a Slave 4 U?” What about Usher’s “U Don’t Have to Call” and No Doubt’s “Hella Good?” The Neptunes were on the boards. Pharrell and Chad produced half of Justin Timberlake’s debut solo album, Justified including the hits “Senorita” and “Rock Your Body ” and you can thank them every time you get down to Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful” or Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” at a party. If you listen closely you’ll notice a common thread among these different tracks, most of them begin with Pharrell’s signature four-count beat drop in the first few seconds.
If being serial collaborators with the likes of Jay Z, Beyoncé, and Kanye West weren’t enough, Pharrell has stayed relevant by working with rising stars like Odd Future crooner, Frank Ocean, Compton lyricists/label mates; Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q, and the ever headline-grabbing Miley Cyrus. Half of the industry can thank Pharrell for a hit record if you didn’t get the point. Pharrell also proved he had the star power to carry his own tune when he sang on “Frontin’” in 2003 for the compilation album, Neptunes Presents… Clones and when he dropped his debut album, In My Mind in 2006. He, Chad, and Shay also released an album about every two years from ’01 to 2010 as N*E*R*D with their rock sound.
It should be no surprise though that G I R L sounds different. G I R L submerges the N*E*R*D in Pharrell and allows the inner Off the Wall in him to stretch its legs. Pharrell describes G I R L as an “ode to women” and he professes his admiration for women on slower songs like the Lion King-humming “Lost Queen,” pleading, “Let me serve you” which transitions to the sea shore sounds of “Freq.” Female artists guest star all over the record as well. Alicia Keys lends her vocals on “Know Who You Are” which encourages women to know their worth. Kelly Osbourne recites a haiku “in honor of the groove” during a bridge in “Marilyn Monroe,” which has funky guitar riffs that harkens back to Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and Miley Cyrus provides a spark on the guitar and clap-heavy “Come Get It Bae.”
Pharrell borrows Deborah Harry’s “Rapture” flow on “Hunter,” which contains perhaps the laziest pop culture reference ever. “Duck Dynasty's cool and all/But they got nothin' on a female's call/I'm a hunter.” “Happy,” the song Pharrell produced with Zimmer for the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack, has been everywhere but you’ll still find yourself trying to sing the front (Clap along) and back (Because I’m happppyyyyy!) vocals at the same time. Daft Punk also returns a favor on the standout track, “Gust of Wind.” It begins as if Zimmer’s strings are in competition with each other to reach some musical mountaintop first and the French robots’ trademark synthesizers mesh with Pharrell’s whiny falsetto over a funky guitar like bread and butter.
G I R L’s cover shows Pharrell surrounded by women in robes, an image that faced some controversy. Fans on Twitter remarked on how there seemed to be a lack of representation of African-American women on the cover, and accused Pharrell of purposefully promoting a specific type of woman. Pharrell responded by saying fans ignorantly jumped to conclusions.
“What really disappointed me is that they jumped the gun, because the one I'm standing the closest to is black,” he said in a radio interview. “She's a black girl from Wisconsin that I used to date over 10 years ago. And that just must suck man, for people to just look at something and to assume that they know what's going on.” Pharrell went on to site “Marilyn Monroe” specifically, saying his lyrics “Not even Marilyn Monroe, not even Joan of Ark… I just want a different girl,” was purposefully implemented to contest stereotypical depictions of women.
The controversy was a minor glitch in an otherwise monster year. Pharrell sang in arguably the three biggest songs of 2013. He joined forces with Daft Punk to produce and sing on three songs on their comeback album, Random Access Memories, allowing the sequent-blazered trio to “Get Lucky” and take home four Grammys, including Song and Album of the Year. At the same time Pharrell held a goat (different) and aided Robin Thicke in giving club goers “Blurred Lines” before they started the new year off on a “Happy” foot. “Happy” snagged an Oscar Nomination for best original song and was accompanied by a 24-hour music video with star-studded cameos, in addition to fan-made videos worldwide.
The last song on G I R L, “It Girl” has Pharrell enlisting exuberant bongos for one final declaration of love. “Your waves, they wash all over me/Your tides, they pull me back to sea.” At the 2:30 mark he stops singing altogether, and leaves us with what else? The beat. Letting the song ride out with the help of cowbell jingles, the album ends on a two-minute note of pure instrumental bliss.
G I R L is an album to blast outside in the thick of summer BBQs. It’s exultant and fun, trading in complex or insightful lyrics for safe and cheesy couplets about love and funky instrumental breaks. It may be an “ode to women” but it’s also a statement of where the recently-married Pharrell is at in life at the moment. He’s happy, so clap along.
Gust of Wind
Alexis, Nadeska. "Pharrell Clarifies There Is A Black Woman On G I R L Album Cover." New Music Videos, Reality TV Shows, Celebrity News, Pop Culture. N.p., 27 Feb. 2014. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.