People need to understand a few things about Pharrell before they can even begin to judge him as a musician. First off, he’s been in the music game for a long time (he’s 41 years old). He rose to fame as half of the production team The Neptunes, arguably one of the best hip hop production teams of all time. He’s collaborated with just about every big star from Jay-Z to Britney Spears. He put Justin Timberlake on the map by producing most of the tracks from his debut, “Justified.” He made “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” He is the man behind “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines,” the two biggest pop hits of last year. It’s hard to deny that he is an insanely talented man who knows how to make great music.
On the heels of a successful 2013, he released his solo album, “G I R L,” at the beginning of this year. Most of us will remember this album as the one that has “Happy” on it. And honestly, that’s a pretty fair summary of it. But here’s a track-by-track walkthrough of what was going through my mind throughout the album.
1. “Marilyn Monroe”
What’s with this new trend of starting albums with some sappy string arrangement (see “Pusher Love Girl”)? Anyways, apparently this track is going to be Pharrell’s next single. I don’t think it’s going to stick. It’s not quite danceable enough, even though it seems like it is desperately trying to be, so I’m not sure where it would fit in the pop sphere these days.
2. “Brand New” (ft. Justin Timberlake)
This sounds like a bonus track off “The 20/20 Experience.” Even the intro on this song has those trademark Timbaland beatbox sounds that are immediately recognizable from other Justin songs like “Cry Me a River” and “Mirrors.” It’s almost like Justin Timberlake was like “nahhhh this song is kind of mediocre, but hey Pharrell you can have it. I already recorded my vocals on some of it though, is that cool?” and Pharrell was like “yeee, I desperately need another track thanks man I’ll hit you up with a new fedora next time I see you.” But despite all the hate I’m giving Pharrell, this track is actually kind of decent. I found myself bobbing along when JT hits that high note on “good-byyeee.” But then again, when has Justin’s head voice ever NOT improved a song?
This song is pretty bad. There’s a very noticeable drop in the production quality when we get to “Hunter.” The guitar lines sound like they were made in Garageband, and they’re like the only part of the beat. Definitely skipping this one.
What do you expect from a song that starts off with Pharrell saying “make the p—ssy just gush” a bunch of times? It also reminds me a lot of that other Pharrell song “Hypnotize U” and its bizarre music video. Highly recommended viewing.
Everyone knows “Happy” is an amazing song. You’ve got backup vocals singing non-conventional chords in the chorus, but it’s still catchy in the way you want pop hooks to be. The drum beat alone is enough to get anybody dancing. It generally just makes you feel good. This song isn’t going anywhere for a while, and I’m cool with that.
6. “Come and Get It Bae”
Apparently Miley is on this song, but I think all I hear of her is her shouting “hey” in the background. I think she sings in the bridge too, but I didn’t make it that far in the song.
7. “Gust of Wind”
This song is pretty cool. It’s very reminiscent of “Get Lucky” (and even includes some Daft Punk vocals), so if you’re a fan of that, definitely give this one a chance. Compared to some of the other tracks on the album, it grooves pretty hard and is definitely a standout. There’s also a bunch of different melodic sections to this song. In other words, there’s more than just a verse and a chorus repeated a bunch of times; Pharrell has like four separate melodic ideas that form the song, which I think continues to keep the song interesting. Others could equally argue that all of these different ideas is what makes the song harder to follow, and therefore less likely to stick as a single. Depends on your taste in songwriting.
Okay, I see you, Pharrell, trying to channel some African music feel with the drums and the melodic style (very simple, reminiscent of a spiritual or children’s song). But that kind of feel definitely feels weird juxtaposed with you talking about how “you know I’ma smash it.” But don’t worry everyone, he makes sure to add afterwards “only if you want it, want it”! It appears Pharrell does care about consent after all, whew! But yeah anyway, this song comes off mad cheesy, and the sounds of waves crashing between “Lost Queen” and the hidden track “Freq” definitely do not help that image.
9. “Know Who You Are” (ft. Alicia Keys)
Kind of a random song, not sure what to make of it. I have no idea why Alicia Keys is on this, but she sounds good per usual.
10. “It Girl”
Never thought I’d find myself saying this, but if I had to choose my favorite song that was titled “It Girl,” I’d have to pick Jason Derulo’s, sorry Pharrell.
If I had to summarize my entire listening experience it’s this: everything else on the album is fine, but nothing comes close to the infectiousness that is “Happy.”
A possible explanation as to why some of Pharrell’s solo endeavors failed to land (e.g. his solo debut “In My Mind,” his time in the rock band N.E.R.D.) is that he’s not a very convincing performer. When placed center stage, Pharrell the singer or Pharrell the rapper just don’t captivate at nearly the same level as an Usher or a Jay-Z. What people take away from Pharrell’s best songs are his beats, and his vocals are always forgotten in the background. You like the quirky cowbell sounds in “Blurred Lines,” not Pharrell going “Woo!” You like Justin Timberlake’s “Senorita” because of the funky piano and drums, not because of Pharrell’s weird intro. And you like “Happy” as a song, but it’s probably not even hard for you to imagine swapping out Pharrell’s vocals with those of someone else like Bruno Mars. Hopefully it’s clear that Pharrell is, hands down, one of the most talented music-makers of our generation. But “G I R L” is more evidence that Pharrell can sometimes fall flat as a solo artist, and instead shines best when he is in the production sphere of things. υ