2013 was arguably the year that Pharrell Williams made the step-up from highly regarded producer and solo artist to zeitgeist embracing mega-stardom.
After having a hand in three of the year’s most successful songs – Daft Punk‘s Get Lucky, Robin Thicke‘s Blurred Lines and his own Happy – he became so ubiquitous that, several minutes after donning an enormous hat for the Grammy Awards, the said hat had gained its own parody account on Twitter.
If you’re familiar with those tracks (and, seriously, how could you not be?), you’ll probably already have an idea of what G I R L sounds like. Back in his days with The Neptunes and N.E.R.D., Pharrell sounded futuristic and a genuine maverick. Nowadays, he’s part of the establishment, making crowd-pleasing, feel-good RnB pop – and it’s something he’s very good at.
Williams’ customary lasciviousness is writ large throughout G I R L. Yet whereas his old cohort Robin Thicke comes over as a bit creepy and threatening, there always seems to be more of a cheeky nod and wink with Pharrell to stop anyone taking it too seriously. He’s possibly the only mainstream male pop star who could get away with entitling a song with the charming moniker of Gush (and he’s not talking about problems with the plumbing).
As you may expect, there are a lot more odes about how just how damn great it is to have sex with ladies – not least Hunter, which (if the rather questionable lyrics – “just because it’s the middle of night that don’t mean I won’t hunt you down” – can be ignored) is probably the stand-out track, a ridiculously funky dancefloor anthem that quickly becomes impossible to sit still to. If there’s one thing that Williams excels at, it’s making people dance, and Hunter more than succeeds on that level.
In fact, the first half of G I R L rivals prime-era Prince for all-round funkiness – the terrific collaboration with Justin Timberlake, Brand New, could quite easily sit on the latter’s The 20/20 Experience (and features some fine beatboxing from Timbaland), and opening track Marilyn Monroe mixes sumptuous strings with the beats, namechecks Joan of Arc and Cleopatra and even finds time for none other than Kelly Osborne to announce, rather portentously, “In honor of the groove and all who’s surrendered to it, we say thank you, and we take it back”. Despite that, it still works rather beautifully.
Some old friends make some reappearances, some of which fare better than others. Daft Punk’s unmistakable vocoders feature on Gust Of Wind – it may not be about to straddle the world in the style of Get Lucky, but is still a mesmerising slice of disco-soul. Miley Cyrus also turns up to repay the favour of Pharrell producing some tracks on Bangerz – the resulting Come Get It Bae is a lightweight but fun party track even if lyrics like “you want to ride my motorcycle” aren’t going to win any awards for subtlety.
Elsewhere, Happy is probably by now verging on over-familiarity, but it can still stand side-by-side with Outkast‘s Hey Ya or Cee-Lo Green‘s Forget You when it comes to modern-day pop anthems, even if, rather like those two songs, it always seems just about to turn ever so irritating. Pharrell in upbeat mode is certainly more palatable than the few loved-up ballads scattered through the second half of the record, with the inspid reggae dub of Know Who You Are (featuring Alicia Keys) and the ‘secret interlude’ track of Freq both sounding particularly plodding, dated and dull.
Yet Pharrell remains very good at what he does – and when that trademark falsetto kicks in, its easy to see why he’s so successful. G I R L may not be breaking many new boundaries, but it’s guaranteed to keep Williams in ludicrously large hats for some time to come.