The Unexciting Universal Charm of Pharrell

by: T.M. Brown

March 11, 2014

So a friend texted me during Pharrell Williams’ Academy Awards performance on Sunday asking what would happen if Clipse came out on stage. Pharrell was performing “Happy,” his groovy, as-close-as-you-can-get-to-saccharine Oscar-nominated song from Despicable Me 2. I imagined Pusha T and Malice storming out onstage and going through the first bars of “Grindin’,” the song that announced Pharrell’s signature sound with three exasperated thuds and a constellation of lighter samples that sounded like metallic bubbles popping in an empty warehouse. It would have been awesome.

Pharrell G I R L WILD mag

Alas, Pusha is busy becoming a Kanye-buttressed superstar and Malice has become No Malice which is just really postmodern and neat. Pharrell—who apparently just turned 40 but I’d forgive you if you thought he was 22 because, Christ, it looks like Ponce de Leon should have just looked in Pharrell’s Brita filter—looks bored during his performance because “Happy” isn’t the kind of song that can support anything resembling emotional heft. Sweating would just deflate the message of the song and bum everyone out. He’s wearing his Vivienne Westwood mountain/Arby’s hat. It’s the first time I find myself thinking that Pharrell has a good voice and that he should use his falsetto less than he does. “Happy” is an excellent song due in no little part to Pharrell’s sunshiny ethos that bleeds through the speakers. Not liking it suggest you’re some sort of perpetually frowning cynic and probably not much fun at parties. The music video is like four minutes of what you’d like your life to be forever. (The 24 hour version might seem like it’s literally your life forever.)

There comes a point when popular musicians start to sound like sonic distillations of their former selves. G I R L, Pharrell’s first solo album in nearly a decade, plants a flag firmly at that checkpoint. The album shows why Pharrell’s characteristic mix of orchestral funk and dance-ready disco is the strain connecting most of the major hits of the last 18 months. (“Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines” are the two obvious examples but the producer’s fingerprints are all over the top of Billboard charts whether they’re authentic or imitated.) What you’re left with is music that is unimpeachably accessible without forcing anyone to wade through the messy flourishes on 2006’s In My Mind or N.E.R.D’s genre tripping In Search Of… and Fly or Die. To paraphrase Pitchfork’s Larry Fitzmaurice, Pharrell’s newest album is a pop music smoothie that goes down easy. Unfortunately, that also means G I R L is really boring.

Pharrell G I R L WILD mag

That G I R L is vanilla makes it hard to review. There are standout singles like “Hunter,” a song so sonically hemmed to Prince’s back catalog you’d think it was written in purple ink. Pharrell’s beloved synthesizers provide the spine of the track but he’s also dragged the production about three decades backwards to inject some legitimate funk into a cybernetic rhythm. The originality—or at least novelty—of “Hunter” almost distracts you from the rest of the album, like a wave broadsiding a tropical booze cruise. (It’s especially apparent when Pharrell breaks into a lascivious spoken word that, against some odds, works really well. It’s David Byrne and the Revolution.)

There are other unexpected highlights on G I R L as well: “Lost Queen” sticks out like Ayer’s Rock given how flat the rest of the album sounds. Let me say something obvious: the first three of the seven plus minute “Lost Queen” sound so much like an updated version of Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” that it’s the only comparison my brain will let me make. The other half of the track is an aquatic, candle-lit R&B serenade that does more than an adequate job of providing something of a sonic dance partner to the muscular backbone in the first half. It’s what would happen if that aforementioned booze cruise took a groovy ride beneath the waves. That “Lost Queen” seems to owe so much to a particular song makes it a special outlier on an album that shifts eras so widely (the genre skipping here is much more muted than it was on any of Pharrell’s earlier solo and collaborative albums) and makes the track a centerpiece without much to discuss on either side. That exceptional glint is rewarding and frustrating, it forces your to appreciate the immense talent Pharrell has as a composer but question whether or not he’s had enough time away from his ubiquitous success to make something that doesn’t have one eye firmly on mass appeal.

But here’s the thing: The album is good. In fact it’s so inoffensive that you could throw it on at any party with any group of people and no one would object or celebrate. Tracks like “Happy” and “It Girl” are groovy and simple, a good combination if your goal is universal charm. It’d be unfair to call G I R L commercial fodder because if any of these ten tracks had premiered as a New Single from Pharrell they would have been critically adored for its musical sensibilities. It may be that it’s gotten to the point that Pharrell is such an outsized figure in popular music that we’ve hit a saturation point. His seminal work with Kelis, Nelly, Justin Timberlake, Clipse and (yes) Britney Spears was spectacular because it announced a new sound that eventually expanded, strained, and burst. G I R L doesn’t announce anything but Pharrell’s dominance over the current sound of pop. All things considered, it could be a lot worse.

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