Ex-NERD production man’s solo debut takes hip-pop to new levels
When Kelis unleashed her Neptunes-scented debut ‘Kaleidoscope’ in 2000, it was a mouthwatering mess of things to come. A crypto/electro/hip-hop monster, it was the four-eyed bastard child of ET and George Clinton. It was the sherbet dip-dab flip of Lauren Hill’s soul-food trip. And Pharrell Williams’ Day-Glo fingerprints were all over it.
From then on, The Neptunes (aka Pharrell and Chad Hugo) became architects of the sound of the new millennium. It boomed and beamed in from another stratosphere, touching everything in pop culture from Britney to Jay-Z, and back again. Only a blinkered churl whose idea of fun is listening to several hours of Boy Kill Boy out-takes could dismiss the party-frolicking fun of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s ‘Got Your Money’ or Mystikal’s ‘Shake Your Ass’, deny the call-and-response Valentine that was Gwen Stefani’s ‘Hollaback Girl’ or the flamenco funk of Justin Timberlake’s ‘Like I Love You’.
The short-lived career of NERD (Pharrell’s band) proved three things: firstly, jazz-funk should never, under any circumstances, be allowed; secondly, having pioneers of faux-rock like Lenny Kravitz and Good Charlotte guesting on your albums does not make you ‘crossover’; and thirdly, the idea that Pharrell could be confined in a ‘band’ situation remains laughable. He’d been standing in the dark, behind various mixing boards, gathering dust for most of the start of the millennium. But he was clearly ready for bigger, better things.
However, the success of Pharrell’s reinvention as ‘solo star’ remains to be seen. Does some high-profile (and, occasionally, high-register) guest spots (Snoop) and one divine single (‘Frontin’’– not included here) a hip-hop legend make? But then, in the post-Gnarls Barkley world of genre-squishing, and the triumph of The Good Song, who better to be crowned Prince of being as good as Prince than the Mighty Musical Masher himself?
‘In My Mind’ flits between two extremes – hip-hop and pop. And, it has to be said, Pharrell’s singing is leagues better than his MCing. His rap skills work well on the likes of ‘Best Friend’ (his rags-to-riches tales, with its addictive therapy refrain of: “Let it out P!/Let it out P!”) and ‘How Does It Feel?’ – Pharrell’s very own ‘Lose Yourself’, which ricochets against train-like percussive beats.
But the album’s true highlights – the ones that will join the best of Pharrell’s gold-coloured pop canon – are the poptastic ones that recall the best of his production work; The ‘Gold Digger’-isms of ‘Raspy’; ‘I Really Like You’, with it’s cheese-tastic Stevie Wonder ’80s harmonica solo; and bonkers ballad ‘Take It Off (Dim The Lights)’ (in which he sings what sounds like the toilet bowl of chat-up lines: “I’m gonna masturbate into your bra”). The album hits its peak at the last circuit – ‘Young Girl’ is new jack swing meets ‘My Prerogative’-era Bobby Brown – all ’80s percussion and distressed synth strokes. ‘Stay With Me’ exhibits Pharrell’s finest Donny Hathaway croon, while ‘Baby’ channels Prince’s ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ to stunning effect.
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While there are a few too many lounge-bar moments – a hangover from his NERD days (is that really jazz hobbit Jamie Cullum singing at the end of ‘You Can Do It Too’?) – when ‘In My Mind’ is good, it really is excellent. This is a fine debut that playfully escapes categorisation and proves Pharrell is a powerful force in his own right.