The rush to release it might imply last-minute haste, but Pharrell Williams’ second solo album isn’t just something he rustled up in the last few days. “It’s a really long story,” he says, a little sheepishly, of the album – elaborately titled ‘G I R L’ (yes, that’s two spaces between each capital letter) – which is out on March 3 but which nobody outside the artist’s immediate circle knew existed until he Tweeted about it on Wednesday.
As the multi-million-selling producer, singer and songwriter explained as he introduced the record to about a hundred representatives of the European media in the London offices of his Sony label last night, ‘G I R L’ was a direct result of his work on Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’. “The robots are so cryptic, so CIA about things,” he chuckles, suggesting that the French duo knew how to get things out of him that nobody else could.
Returning from the Paris sessions and heavily jetlagged, with no clear idea about how the sessions had gone or what he thought about the music he’d made with DP, Williams attended a meeting with label bosses. They informed him that the results were spectacular, that ‘Get Lucky’ was to be Daft Punk’s next single, and that the time was therefore right for Williams to start thinking seriously about making a follow-up to 2006’s ‘In My Mind’.
“They made me an offer, pretty much right there at the table,” says Williams. He agreed quickly, in no small part because he was “overwhelmed that someone wanted to know what’s in my heart.”
The theme of the album is an attempt by Williams to eliminate what he sees as an understandable degree of uncertainty over what his attitude to women actually is. Referring specifically to his controversial collaboration with Robin Thicke and TI, ‘Blurred Lines’, he notes that with its “questionable lyrics, and the nature of the aesthetic of the video, it’s easy to get confused about that.” So ‘G I R L’ is him trying to put the record straight.
“There’s an imbalance in society, in my opinion,” he says, “and it’s going to change. A world where 75 per cent of it is run by women – that’s a different world. That’s gonna happen, and I want to be on the right side of it when it does.”
1. ‘Marilyn Monroe’
The record opens with a flurry of strings – orchestrated by Pharrell’s new BFF, the Oscar-winning film composer Hans Zimmer, with whom he worked on soundtracks to both Despicable Me films – which abruptly drop out
long enough for him to intone a single word: “different”. That’s the cue to detonate a typically sophisticated piece of retro sci-fi future funk (yes, I know it’s a contradiction: Williams has long made those his stock in trade). There’s a chorus arrived at via a pre-chorus, a verse that’s as immediate as most other people’s choruses, a weird middle-eight with a sort of droning foghorn of synth underpinning sparse percussion, then another, different hook kicks in and a scratchy funk guitar, courtesy of long-time collaborator Brent Paschke of Spymob, takes us on a trip.
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Suddenly we’re somewhere between the Brooklyn dancefloors of Saturday Night Fever and Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams surrendering to ‘I Feel Love’ in American Hustle – and all the while Williams is insisting
that Marilyn, Cleopatra and Joan of Arc “don’t do nothing to me.” The intent was to write a song that said that ideals of feminine beauty are redundant. “You don’t have to be a certain weight, a certain height,” he says. “For me, she doesn’t have to be the statuesque American standard of what beauty is.”
2. ‘Brand New’ featuring Justin Timberlake
After ‘Marilyn…’s overload of hooks, this relentless but straight-ahead song emphasises some of the new album’s quickly emerging qualities while making sure Pharrell keeps his creativity on the rails. “Life to me is crazy,” he croons at one point: “People make it complicated.” He’s not about to be one of them, this chunkier cut precision-tooled to keep us focused on his love vibrations. If the first track suggested he’d been listening to Michael Jackson while thinking of Prince, this one implies some familiarity with the same parts of the Stevie Wonder catalogue Jamiroquai often profitably mine. That’s a compliment, by the way.
“Written from the perspective of the girl, to me,” he explains, before what’s probably the best track on the album arrives in an outbreak of spangly guitar and rubber-band bass. Our game of Spot the Reference begins to get surreal: the taut and muscular funk-rock of the verses is a dead ringer for INXS’s ‘Need You Tonight’, the second verse finds Williams all but channelling David Byrne circa ‘Once In A Lifetime’, and when, playing the role of the female protagonist, he raps in an almost feminine purr, you wonder at first whether he’s hired Debbie Harry to reprise her ‘Rapture’ wordplay. But at all times, and in every note, it remains definably, determinedly Pharrell.
“There are times where I get a little bit cute,” he’d warned us earlier, as he explained his New Man mission statement. “But I should be allowed to do that.” This’ll be one of those times, then – and if, by contemporary standards, this is hardly X-rated, it’s still aimed below the waist rather than above the shoulders. It’s the first time we hear the strange washes of unusually sequenced chords that were a signature Neptunes production trait a decade ago, and by his lights this might be the record’s first example of business as usual. It works, though. “I don’t know what came over me,” he warbles. Oh, Pharrell, you cheeky scamp.
This one you know – but you probably haven’t heard about how it was made. “When you’re expressing yourself, things are going to come through,” he explains, outlining a story where a song about being happy came out of
frustration at not being able to write about someone becoming happy, but sounded happy in the end because the hard work eventually paid off. “I went through nine songs,” he says, recalling how he was asked to write a song to run in the sequence in Despicable Me 2 where anti-hero Gru transforms from a cantenkerous misanthrope to a lovestruck nice guy. “And that’s when I ran out of ideas.” He gave it one last despairing try, “and that’s when it clicked. I stayed focused on the task at hand, and I guess I was very happy. It’s one of the best songs I’ve done in my life.”
6. ‘Come Get It Babe’
For the first time – though not the last – we journey musically into the Caribbean, with a track that betrays a gentle though still clear debt to classic dancehall. The lyric features an enigmatic lyrical tic – the phrase “Way Ment” – which, Williams reveals, is him fulfilling a promise to a Twitter follower. She’d seen him on TV unexpectedly, and in her astonishment had coined her own spelling of “wait a minute” to Tweet her surprise. “I’ll use that!” He’d told @kuhRISSten. “Just wait!” She was the recipient of his album-announcing Tweet this week – one suspects she may have a few more followers before too long. Oh, and Miley Cyrus appears on backing vocals.
7. ‘Gust Of Wind’
Pharrell’s favourite track – the lyric came to him in a dream – is another widescreen epic, all Bond-ish string surges and French Touch beats. It’s about how he can feel his lover’s emotions when he opens the window and puts his hands into the breeze. The euphoria of the hook is contrasted with a certain sense of awe-struck unease in the verses. Is there a part of that atmosphere, and perhaps even a smidgen of the melody, that he’s lifted from Helen Reddy’s spookily mysterious 40-year-old hit ‘Angie Baby’? With a knowledge of pop as deep and broad as Williams’s – and, given that it’s a song about a “special lady” with mystical powers who uses loud music to defend herself against an evil male attacker – it’s certainly possible. This track’s backing vocalists? It’s only Daft Punk.
8. ‘Lost Queen’
“There’s no real music – just some tribal guys harmonising and I sing on top of it.” A disarming intro from Skateboard P, but not entirely unhelpful. One could, of course, argue about which is more “real” – a cappella singing in a seemingly aboriginal style, or someone faffing around with electronic equipment – but ‘Lost Queen’ certainly feels like the Unplugged section of ‘G I R L’. We can applaud the creative ambition and unbridled sense of anything-goes-ness, but this oddity isn’t necessarily an untrammelled success. Indeed, with those harmonic hums put through the Pharrelliser and turned into something that recalls the sound of a certain ancient wind instrument, the slowly dawning realisation is that the musician this is most reminding us of is, erm, Rolf Harris.
He describes it as an “interlude”, but in duration alone, ‘Freq’ (short for “frequency”) is a full track. Admittedly, a good portion of its first half is given over to sounds of waves breaking on some unidentified shore. The remainder is mainly taken up by the repeated mantra, “You gotta go inward to experience the outer space that was built for you,” delivered between snatches of a breathing exercise. Pharrell says: “Yes, I do intend to have these things at the show.” What “things” he could mean is not immediately clear. Breathing coaches? Floatation tanks? People spouting impressive-sounding mumbo-jumbo? All of the above? We await the tour dates with interest, and perhaps a little bit of trepidation.
10. ‘I Know Who You Are’ featuring Alicia Keys
In mood, this feels like a cousin of ‘Happy’, though there’s no similarity in melodic or structural terms. It’s a traditional duet, with Pharrell setting out his stall in verse one – “I know who you are and what you’re feeling” – before Alicia takes the same phrase and twists it around to return the sentiment, which even the song itself refers to as a “pledge”. Working with Keys on the song “made all the sense in the world,” Pharrell says, “because that’s who she is. She embodied the pledge.”
11. ‘It Girl’
The final track takes us neatly, symmetrically, properly and quite satisfyingly back to the sound and style of the beginning, before gently sliding away in the album’s longest fade – Pharrell, if you will, setting us adrift on memory bliss (though it’s a homage to A Tribe Called Quest rather than a deliberate invocation of any other post-D.A.I.S.Y. Age rappers). If you’ve been following his work these past two decades, this is the sort of record you might hope, if not expect, him to make, and it’s one of the better ones of its type – that little upper-register thing he does that’s so distinctive as a vocalist and songwriter, which you hear in his early work with Timberlake or his oft-overlooked tracks on Cee-Lo’s second album; that unique sound, partway between a guitar and a clavinet, that skitters around in the midrange of stuff like ‘Hot In Herre’ or various parts of the first N*E*R*D LP; a discofied middle-eight that
crosses the divide (really not that vast) that separates Daft Punk from Maroon 5 (back before they learned to move like Jagger). And what he does on ‘It Girl’, as he’s managed throughout ‘G I R L’ (and this is important, because he hasn’t always done it in the past), is to make sure that the sheen and the finesse is always in service of a good song. All boxes ticked, all requirements met – job done.
“I’m a perfectionist,” he says to the assembled (and, it would seem, generally quite impressed) hackery, evidently humbled by the sustained round of applause that meets the end of the play-through. “But I’m really content this time. This is my most favourite work.” It’s easy to understand why.