Pharrel’s Girl: Leave the Album, Take the Single

For a good portion of last year, the producer-songwriter-singer Pharrell seemed to be singlehandedly keeping the recording industry afloat through his work on an inescapable pair of hits: “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky.”  With success like that, it’d be foolish not to put out more music as quickly as possible, so he is releasing G I R L, a solo album, this week. Pharrell made his name more than a decade ago as a producer who could provide access to the rarified air up near the top of the charts in a number of genres. In the shifty pop landscape, a reliable hit-maker is king, and Pharrell still knows what it takes to make a hit—his latest single, “Happy,” just hit the top spot on the pop charts, nearly 14 years after he produced his first #1 for Jay-Z.

Working as part of a production team known as the Neptunes in the early ‘00s, Pharrell established his brand by making a series of jerky, danceable songs—including Nelly’s “Hot in Here,” Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love You,” and Justin Timberlake’s “Senorita”—that became hits in R&B, rap, and pop. He specialized in creating stripped-down funk, which he filtered through hip-hop and state of the art technology. Stabbing electronics created a melodic spine and beat; songs always found their way back to smooth, falsetto choruses, often sung by Pharrell.

A second class of Pharrell’s songs, the most exciting ones, don’t just jab and pop—they grab your attention with their brash, radical sonic decisions. This select group of tunes appears to come from another planet that uses different instruments and has different beliefs about the ways songs should be spaced and textured. In “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” Snoop Dogg raps over a shockingly minimal rhythm, a demo track that someone forgot to bulk up, with parts possibly made by a precocious five year-old. Missy Elliott’s “On and On” builds around a series of squeaks and squelches, like Pharrell bottled an escaping radio transmission. For Mystikal’s “Bouncin’ Back,” Pharrell put together a beat that approximates a drunken brass brand conducting primal scream therapy.

What artist gets what kind of song from Pharrell? Several of the artists he worked with have so much power they hardly need a beat—Mystikal, Missy Elliott, or the former duo Clipse (Pusha T and Malice) are blessed with potent, aggressive voices that demand attention. Working behind them, Pharrell had tons of freedom. Other collaborators, like Usher or Justin Timberlake, need more guidance, thicker templates to prop up a thinner presence, so they usually ended up with the Phunk. Pharrell is adept enough at giving different types of vocalist the right environment to shine that playing his productions back to back can be dizzying. Mystikal, who never works below the level of a hoarse shout, jumps into a song with the line, “I came here with my dick in my hand,” while Justin Timberlake asks nicely for a dance. Kelis can scream “I hate you so much right now,” and on the other end of the spectrum, Robin Thicke croons, “she’s the kind of girl you wanna marry.”

Pharrell experienced a lull after the first half of the ‘00s, struggling to find his way to the big hits—though maybe he was just coasting, gathering his strength for another push to the top. He started getting back into high profile projects in 2012, when he contributed to acclaimed albums by Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar. Then suddenly he was everywhere (again): in 2013, his name appeared on albums from Tyler the Creator, Miley Cyrus, Earl Sweatshirt, Kelly Rowland, Jay-Z, Pusha T, Mayer Hawthorne, the Weeknd, and Beyonce, plus those Daft Punk and Robin Thicke songs.

G I R L serves up plenty of the lusher brand of funk favored by Pharrell 2.0—it’s enamored with the same late ‘70s R&B that inspired his recent work with Thicke and the Robots. While Pharrell’s falsetto hooks once offered relief and surprise as they rose out of barren, percussive soundscapes, now they seem entirely logical, a natural component of these luxurious, gleaming songs. The instrumentation is more conventional—fewer unrecognizable sounds, a lot of guitar—and the pacing has changed as well, shifting towards steadier, more predictable beats.  There’s no rapping on G I R L, and none of the rhythmic curveballs that Pharrell might pitch to a rapper.

This is straight disco, complete with string sections, brass, and streams of shiny guitar. Just ten songs, G I R L is light and airy, here and gone. The guitar, chopped and smooth, drips everywhere, serving both to knit the songs together and to make the album a bit monotonous. G I R L celebrates love and lust, but despite heavy breathing, a song called “Gush,” and motorcycle-riding innuendo, there’s nothing explicit. (After all, the album’s lead single appeared in the children’s movie Despicable Me 2.) Touches of other songs float to the surface: the Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster” peaks out from behind “Hunter;” the cadence of “Lost Queen” evokes Lorde’s “Royals.” “Know Who You Are” detours quickly into reggae, because reggae has an appropriately bubbly bounce. You could do without the album, and just take “Happy,” Pharrell’s latest piece of musical ubiquity, which shows the beauty of simplicity: a sharp drum hit, a cymbal, a bass line, a hand-clap, a gliding chorus.

Justin Timberlake shows up to duet on the second track, and G I R L shares some characteristics with Timberlake’s hefty recent release, The 20/20 Experience: sonic richness, overuse of falsetto, a lot of come-ons without much steam. Luckily, Pharrell remains free of the pretension that made Timberlake’s album such a slog. (Though there is one song longer than seven minutes that indulges a mid-song breakdown in the form of ocean waves.) When collaborators show up, it’s hard not to compare the results with Pharrell’s other productions. Miley Cyrus sings on “Come Get It Bae,” which is less compelling than the galloping tune Pharrell contributed to Cyrus’s Bangerz.  Daft Punk earn credits on “Gust of Wind,” which falls short of the disco Pharrell helped the French duo put together for last year’s Random Access Memories.

On “Lost Queen,” Pharrell wonders, “What planet are you from girl/ and are there more of you there?” Usually, he’s the one existing out on his own planet. In Clipse’s “Grindin,’” from 2002, he started the song by introducing himself: “I go by the name of Pharrell…I just wanna let y’all know, the world is about to feel something that they never felt before.” Few artists can offer that, fewer have delivered on their promise. G I R L doesn’t bother to try, but don’t assume Pharrell’s forgotten how.

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