An apology for 'Blurred Lines' transforms into the superstar producer's solo high point
Judging by his solo discography, it’s difficult to see why Pharrell Williams’ second LP might be considered An Event. His 2006 debut, ‘In My Mind’, was patchy at best, and aside from last year’s ‘Happy’, a tie-in with the movie ‘Despicable Me 2’, the records the Virginia Beach native has made under his own name haven’t exactly set the world on fire. But ever since he helped his mentor, Teddy Riley, make the risqué swingbeat anthem ‘Rump Shaker’ in 1992, Pharrell (often alongside Neptunes and N*E*R*D partner Chad Hugo) has been one of pop’s most innovative and successful producers, writers and vocalists.
The parade of big-name guests (Kanye West, Gwen Stefani, Jay Z et al) that made ‘In My Mind’ feel more like a compilation album than a solo record has been slimmed down to a pair of A-listers (Justin Timberlake and Alicia Keys supply the only duets here, though Daft Punk and Miley Cyrus drop in on backing vocals). The result is less about others and more about Pharrell – less what’s in his mind, and more what’s in his heart.
It’s an admirably concise album, driven by a sense of carefree abandon that is both versatile and eclectic. As it sashays through crisp robo-funk, spot-on disco pastiche, symphonic pop and futuristic R&B, the most relevant reference point is Prince. Only the enigmatic genius himself would dare put songs as diverse as the not-entirely-successful Caribbean a cappella oddity ‘Lost Queen’ and the magnificently epic ‘Gust Of Wind’ not only on the same album, but next to each other in the track listing.
Williams has described the album as an explanation and apology to women offended by his involvement in ‘Blurred Lines’, but in reality it seems much more about him being on his own musically than any grand statement about feminism. Opener ‘Marilyn Monroe’, in which he does critique American ideals of beauty, rolls in on a grand flourish of strings (orchestrated by Pharrell’s increasingly frequent collaborator, the
Oscar-winning film composer Hans Zimmer), which heralds his breathy whisper of the word “different”. It feels more about emphasising his distance from everyone else in pop music than driving female emancipation, but twin visions for a thrilling, populist yet provocative album are set out nonetheless.
Right from ‘Marilyn Monroe’, he’s off. He dances around genres, the vaudevillian ‘Happy’ sitting perfectly in the middle of it all, not because it sounds like what surrounds it but precisely because it doesn’t. By the mirrorball moment that heralds the lengthy coda to the closing ‘It Girl’, you’re left giddy and breathless, applauding a 20-year veteran who’s finally found his voice.