G I R L * Pharrell Williams * Pop * March 3, 2014
Pharrell Williams has been a powerhouse producer in the music industry ever since he and his partner Chad Hugo, otherwise known as The Neptunes, added their magic to Wreckx-N-Effect’s Rumpshaker in 1992. What he hasn’t been, however, is a powerhouse artist. Most of the Neptunes and N.E.R.D. albums barely broke 450,000 copies sold. His first solo album, In My Mind, didn’t even manage to go gold despite help from Kanye West on the first single and Williams being at the apex of his mainstream popularity.
One listen to those albums and it is possible to see why they were not big commercial hits. While initial sales were driven by a more radio friendly singles, most of the tracks were majorly overproduced, as if Williams couldn’t hold himself back from piling on the sounds. While it seemed like he was going for a new eclectic sound, he usually ended up with a chaotic mess that made the albums hard to listen to.
That seemed to change when he was chosen to produce the soundtracks for the animated movies, Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2. The tunes were a hit with children and adults alike; especially the single Happy, which became a massive worldwide hit with over 25 million singles sold to date. Williams seemed to have found his balance between flavor and overcomplexity and it suited him well.
Now releasing his first (non-corporate sponsored) solo project in eight years, can he continue the streak of personal success he seems to be on?
1. Marilyn Monroe – The lush sound of orchestral strings is what greets you in the intro to this song and album. Hans Zimmer puts in serious work with his 30-piece orchestra and it is beautiful. After about 20 seconds though, you are given the familiar Neptunes sound layered over those strings with a funky guitar riff in the background. It is an excellent balance; complex enough to be interesting, simple enough to be listenable. A song about falling for a nontraditional beauty, the lyrics are a little sloppy. While the illusions to Cleopatra and Marilyn Monroe fit the theme, the mention of Joan of Arc does not (she was not known for her beauty but for her visions sent by God). The rhyming scheme also brings the song down a little as the short lines make the lack of consistency stand out. The lyrics also seem to run out before the song ends and it makes the track feel a little long. Williams’ vocals are interesting because, at times, it seems like he flirts with going-off key without actually doing so. While the song could have been tighter, it is light and danceable and it’s clear why it was chosen as a single.
2. Brand New – Starting off with Justin Timberlake’s beatboxing, the transition to the salsa-esque horns and drums is stunning and unexpected. Another production that is bright and dancy, you immediately feel the urge to get up and shake about. The concept of the song is about love making Williams and Timberlake feel refreshed. The lyrics here are very good. From waking up in the morning to feeling like the tag’s still on me, the metaphors and similes are new (or, at least, underutilized). The downside is that Timberlake demolishes Williams vocally. While Timberlake’s falsetto is smooth and effortless, Williams seems to be straining at times. At the times when the two combine for harmonies, it seems as though Timberlake is holding back a little. Still, the there is enough energy in this track to make most people ignore the vocal issues.
3. Hunter – With the signature Neptune sound seeming to be applied very lightly to a sample of Upside Down, the minimalist production here does something that it really should not; highlight Williams’ vocals. He starts off with a shaky falsetto and transitions into off-key yells that, while they may have been intentional, make him sound as if he’s in pain. The concept of the song is that he is trying to capture the heart (and other parts) of a woman that keeps blowing him off. The hunter motif works sometimes and not others, but it is never completely lost. While the production is excellent, the subpar lyrics and vocals make this track one that is likely to be skipped.
4. Gush – Yes; this song is about sex, but most of the song is not as crass as the opening refrain. While the straightforwardness of the lyrics leaves no doubt to what Williams is requesting of his girl, it also makes it one of the better written songs on the album. Without a metaphor to get lost in, the lyrics are more cohesive. The Neptunes sound from the Justified era rears its head for this one. The production is fun, but the similar overtones of the songs is starting to make the tracks feel repetitive. Williams’ vocals are better than average, too, as he sounds excited and invested in the subject matter without straining.
5. Happy – At this point, everyone and their long dead uncle knows this song. About that oh-so-good feeling, this has become the feel-good track of the first half of 2014. Not that it doesn’t deserve it; the song is excellent. Williams, with the assistance of the background harmonies, manage to convey light emotion with floating vocals that are strong and consistent. You get the feeling that he felt good in the studio while recording the track. The production, while containing his underlying signature, has just enough Motown soul to separate it from the songs that came before it. The lyrics are excellent; enough concrete imagery to personalize the song to Williams but enough generalization so that everyone can relate. A standout track.
6. Come Get It Bae – This song seems to take its backing beat from Missy Elliott’s Pass That Dutch and you immediately want to Riverdance. While Happy was a much needed break from the repetitive beats of this album, this song makes a return to them. Featuring an oddly uncredited Miley Cyrus, the vocals here are okay. They aren’t as good as they are on Marilyn Monroe, but not nearly as jarring as Hunter. The lyrics here are just okay, too, with the common thread of the two being able to fulfill each other’s desire to the point that they just can’t get enough of one another. Not a bad track, but not a particularly memorable one.
7. Gust of Wind – This song features an uncredited Daft Punk, so you will be forgiven if you think this song sounds like a cross between Lucky and Marilyn Monroe. A similar beat has now appeared on five of the seven tracks so far and it becomes hard to not tune out a little. A song about how overcome with love at first sight he was with the woman in question, the lyric are subpar. Making sense of the lines like When I open the window/I wanna hug you/’Cause you remind me of the air along with the mixed metaphor of outer space will completely lose you if you pay too close attention. The vocals are not bad. Williams, while not sounding invested, is consistent in his tones. Even the robotic Daft Punk vocals are nice, managing to add a little color to a pretty forgettable song.
8. Lost Queen – The African styled hums that intro this track are nice, but it leads into the same sound that has dominated this album. At this point we have heard it all before; the repetitive heys, the handclaps, and that Neptune sound. Williams seems to be bored as well, because he sounds completely disconnected from the material. About feeling that the woman in front of him is so incredible that she must be an alien queen, this song is a platitude fest lyrically. He offers to serve her hot sex and lavish gifts if she would just be his, making the woman sound so shallow that you wonder why he feels so good when he’s with her. The equivalent of bad game in the club, this song goes in one ear and out the other.
8.5 Freq – Giving credit where it’s due, most artists would not put a hidden track at the end of one that has another listed track following it. As Lost Queen fades into waves, we transition into a song that sounds a little bit like something that would have been featured on Kelis’ Kaleidoscope. With a title that is meant to play on the musical balance terms of frequency and EQ, the cleverness stops there as the next three minutes are spent repeating the same verse, bridge, and chorus over and over. Featuring an uncredited and underutilized JoJo, the vocals are not half bad, but they do not save this track which sounds like an afterthought.
9. Know Who You Are – The repetitive beat is now remixed into a Caribbean-styled beat that, despite its similarities to the other tracks, still makes you want to move. The addition of Alicia Keys to this track is both a blessing and a curse. While she and Williams have good chemistry on the track, her vocals and signature additions show what this track could have been in better hands. She also drowns Williams in a sea of at-ease vocals that compliment the beatwork to a tea, while his vocals reach that pained crescendo that has popped up from time to time. Keys also confuses the concept of the song. Her verse is about female empowerment and rising above. Williams’ verses are about taking a toke.
10. It Girl – Williams’ uses the final song on the album to tell his girl that she and their love making are the only thing that calm him when things get rough and he can’t wait to get home to her. His vocals spend too much time in the shaky falsetto range or seem off-key because of his pseudo-sexy delivery. Just like Freq, this song is a throwaway. Clocking in at around five minutes, the song only has one verse and the last half is just an instrumental. It is also the only track on the album that uses a fadeout at the end, which is an odd choice. The rest of the tracks on the album just stop, sometimes way too abruptly. This track, which needed to end at least one minute earlier, seems to slink away in shame as if to say, “Sorry; I thought this would be better.”
There is a saying in entertainment: when the product is weak, overproduce. Listening to this album gives you the feeling that the reason Williams opted for such complicated production on his other albums is because he usually cannot carry as song vocally or lyrically. The near-flawless beatwork on each individual song shows the holes in the other areas, and they are big.
I have no doubt that, reading my review, you would think I would hate this album; but, I don’t. The major issue with it is that it seems like it wasn’t created to be listened to deeply or in one sitting. If this were playing in the background at a party, I would most certainly dance to most of these tracks. If one of these songs came on the radio in the car, I would probably sing along. It just doesn’t work as a cohesive project. Pharrell Williams is a magnificent producer but he seems to have fallen into the trap that others, like The-Dream and Jermaine Dupri, have fallen into; just because you are good at one aspect of music does not mean you will excel in them all. My recommendation is that you find a way to listen to the album in its entirety and decide which tracks to buy because I don’t think you will want them all.