When Pharrell Williams once sang, “you can’t be me, I’m a rock star” he seemed to be debunking the inherent ridiculousness and monomania that pop stardom brings, as much as he was celebrating it. Well, make no mistake about it – Pharrell is a capital-letters neon-lights Rock Star, quite possibly the finest, brashest, most balls-bared rock star we have at our disposal, and ‘Fly Or Die’ sees him trying on the title for size and finding that it fits just dandy.
This is still, more or less, a hip-hop record: the nuts and bolts are there, the hefty bass, the beats that thunder like rutting mastodons. But over and above the jeep beats, there is Williams and his wonderful world of whims and why-not?s, painting almost every track in glorious technicolour. He has clearly approached ‘Fly Or Die’ as the kind of project where the central aim is to show us all how clever he is, and as he flits from musical style to style like a hungry pop bee, you’re pounded into submission because HE IS JUST SO GODDAMN GOOD AT EVERYTHING.
It starts as it means to go on – gigantically. ‘Don’t Worry About It’ is truly awesome, a gigantic hard rock classic overladen with Williams’ hysterical shrill funk vocals. Just as it reaches a full head of steam, it suddenly explodes into a rapturous, harmony-saturated break that [a]Prince[/a] at his most Paisley Park would struggle to best. ‘Fly Or Die’ is even more Big Rock, with the chaps slipping in sinuous G-funk breaks for good measure, but the fun really starts when ‘Backseat Love’ thunders into view. One part ‘All Right Now’ by [a]Free[/a], one part [a]LL Cool J[/a] at his most swollen-bollocked, it is the best, by which we mean nastiest, slice of old skool lasciviousness allowable by law, and makes [a]Har Mar Superstar[/a] sound like [a]Cliff Richard[/a]. In fact, if Sir Cliff were ever to hear it, he’d cast off the V plates and fuck till his pods dried up. Allegedly.
The most amazing track on the album, though, is ‘Drill Sergeant’, for no other reason than that it is an absolutely fantastic guitar pop record. In fact, it sounds just like – I shit you not – the [a]NERD[/a] at their most sunshined-up and effervescent and it WILL be a Number One. By way of a contrast, we then get the bludgeoning guitars of ‘Preservation’, the closest thing on here to ‘Rock Star’ with its monstrous slabs of fuzz and lyrical belligerence. Said guitar licks call to mind nobody more than everybody’s favourite inquisitive smut bloodhound, Pete Townsend. And then by way of another contrast, we get ‘Thrasher’, which is the most straight-up hip-hop track on here with its unashamedly woofer-threatening thump-beats,were it not for the fact that it comes drenched with Sergeant Pepper-esque string arrangements. Elsewhere, [a]Lenny Kravitz[/a] do [a][/a] (the must-be-monstrous ‘Maybe’, whose chorus alone could raze tall buildings to the ground), the [a]Prince[/a] (‘Breakout’, with its mosh-friendly chorus), a little more [a]Prince[/a], a little [a]Curtis Mayfield[/a]…
Criticisms? Well, much like Mark Ronson’s wilfully genre-bending debut from a few months back, it feels for all the world that it is celebrating, above all else, the collective’s ability to turn their hand to any musical style they choose – you practically expect Williams to pop up between tracks and announce with a flourish, “For our next trick… we will fuse ’80s FM rock with hardcore rap!” (and yes, they even do that, on the pervy ‘The Way She Dances’). Indeed, at the start of the [a]NERD[/a]-meets-[a]NERD[/a] closer, Williams’ opening line is “I wrote this song / When I was drunk” and you wonder if he is establishing a ramshackle, elegantly wasted persona dramatis, or whether he is just boasting. On the subject of role-playing, another quibble is that, on ‘She Wants To Move’ and ‘The Way She Dances’, Pharrell slips into the same sweaty-palmed voyeuristic lecher character that he did on Tape You from the last [a]Lenny Kravitz[/a] LP. It sat uncomfortably there and it does here. It’s like, okay, we get it, you like looking at women, particularly sexy ones! Now get back to writing choruses that make us want to start riots! Because its those incendiary choruses, megaton blasts of heavy metal noise and gleeful generic bastardisations that make [a]Lenny Kravitz[/a] rock. And they really, REALLY do rock.
Get ‘Fly Or Die’ at the NME Shop