While Pharrell Williams will always be best known as a songwriter and producer, he’s had a recurring career as an artist for almost a decade and a half now. He’s released four albums as 1/2 (1/3?) of N.E.R.D., and he also released a solo album called In My Mind, a few years back. However, he’s never really been thought of as an artist in his own right. Maybe that’s partially because so much of his previous work has fallen into the “Oh Lord, it’s another producer trying to be an artist” trap that’s resulted in shitty albums by Jermaine Dupri, Diddy, Timbaland and any other hip-hop/R&B producer of the last 20 years that isn’t Babyface, Dr. Dre or Kanye West.
In 2014, Pharrell finds himself bigger than ever, thanks to last year’s monster hits “Blurred Lines” (by Robin Thicke, featuring Pharrell) and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” which did more to advance the career of Pharrell as a vocalist than any song previously. This goodwill has continued with the Oscar-nominated smash “Happy,” unquestionably the song of the first quarter of the year.
So, I’ll be real: I had no intention of buying G I R L, Pharrell’s recently released second solo effort. I like “Happy” enough, but I’ve also at various points owned the guy’s entire performing catalog, and aside from N.E.R.D.’s debut album In Search Of…, there’s been nothing worth keeping. Expectations were low, but I decided to go on Spotify and give the album a cursory listen. Lo and behold, I enjoyed what I was hearing. Twelve bucks and a business day later (thanks, Amazon!) I owned a copy of G I R L, and I don’t regret my purchase one bit. It’s easily the most satisfying effort Pharrell has made as a lead artist.
Thankfully, on this album Pharrell has decided to stick with the “Happy” blueprint and created an easygoing collection of pop/soul songs that’s as accessible as anything he’s ever put out (actually, more accessible than anything he’s ever put out.) Although his Curtis Mayfield-inspired singing voice is an acquired taste, it rarely gets annoying, and even the new wave inspired “Hunter,” on which he pushes his vocal range to its weirdest, is endearing. It helps that on this song, he comes off as the slightly demented spawn of David Byrne and Deborah Harry. We all know at this point that Pharrell’s a closet rocker, but this is probably his best work in that vein.
I read something online comparing Pharrell to Smokey Robinson, and I laughed heartily until I gave G I R L another listen and realized that songs like “Happy” and “Come Get It Bae” actually do have a bit of a retro-Motown flair to them. While Pharrell is no match for Smokey in terms of vocal or songwriting ability, these songs do have the easy charm and melodic sensibility that’s associated with the Motown legend. Those are just two of the album’s highlights. Hans Zimmer‘s strings enliven the summery “Gust Of Wind,” while Justin Timberlake and Skateboard P trade off breezy verses on “Brand New.” Truthfully, there’s not a bad track on this album, and it helps that Pharrell doesn’t indulge in two activities that have doomed his previous work: he doesn’t rap (someone finally sent him the “you’re not an emcee” memo!) and he doesn’t rely heavily on guest artists. Timberlake and Alicia Keys are the only two featured artists here, and although Miley Cyrus, Kelly Osbourne and JoJo all make appearances, they serve in more of an “additional flavoring” capacity than anything else.
He’s been working at it since the beginning of the century, and finally Pharrell has created an album that’s worth listening to all the way through. Let’s hope it doesn’t take fifteen years for him to do it again!