The Happiest Fellow of All: Pharrell Williams and his album Girl, featuring duets with Justin Timberlake and Alicia Keys

By Daniel Garrett

Pharrell Williams, Girl
Columbia Records/Sony, 2014

The actresses Lupita Amondi Nyong’o, Meryl Streep, and Amy Adams and a stage full of multicultural others danced with the small, lithe, ever youthful Pharrell Williams when Williams performed the deliriously joyous song “Happy” at the 2014 Academy Awards: it was an anthem for a good mood, and an anthem for the kind of world we would all like to live in. The Virginia-born music and style icon Pharrell Williams, once a partner with his childhood friend Chad Hugo in the producing team The Neptunes, made the solo album In My Mind (2006) and now Girl: Girl has a light, contemporary dance sound. Its attitude is open, flirtatious, and confident. The singer-songwriter’s persona is that of a smart urbanite. Pharrell Williams, as part of the Neptunes (with Chad Hugo, and sometimes Shay Haley and Mike Etheridge), has contributed to work by Wreckx-N-Effect, SWV, Kelis, Britney Spears, Nelly, Justin Timberlake, and Daft Punk. Pharrell Williams has acted as a producer for Madonna and Beyoncé too. Williams has been a shaper of popular music; and on Girl he serves himself some of that. Entertainment, not enlightenment, is the purpose of the recording; and while there is no great depth here, there is also a lack of the contempt or hostility that surfaces between men and women in many popular songs and raps. Williams’s song “Happy” is terrific; and “Lost Queen” achieves intimacy and its vocal arrangement suggests something nicely traditional (African choral work).

On Girl, the song “Marilyn Monroe” is a lover’s appreciation of great women, a confession of abundant desire, in which the narrator’s beloved outshines the most legendary of women. In Billboard magazine (February 25, 2014), the critic Reggie Ugwu noted the participation of composer-arranger Hans Zimmer in Williams’s current work: “The first sound on the album is an extended string reveille performed by a 30-piece orchestra, welcoming listeners in cinematic style. ‘Marilyn Monroe’ then pivots into a Thriller-esque dance floor lubricant, complete with an exhortation of ‘let’s all dance and elevate each other.’” However, Pharrell Williams is ambitious and likable and remarkably successful but he is not yet in Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson’s league. There was significant humane depth in the best work of Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson, work that is not only impressive but risky: they took chances with attitude and emotion as well as subject and sound. (“It’s intensely catchy and harmlessly empty, and succeeds largely because of Mr. Williams’s bravery at standing firm on territory no one else is trying to claim,” wrote Jon Caramanica of Girl in The New York Times, February 26, 2014, going on to explain that “he may be the first person to make adult-contemporary pop that actually sounds contemporary.”) The duet with Justin Timberlake, “Brand New,” could be about the men singing to each other (that would be brave), but the song is both men singing to a woman who makes them feel fresh. The song has a playfulness that may be willed, but the conscious choice—pleasure not pain—ensures a certain preferred quality of life. Fast and a little fey, “Hunter” has got drive and it is also about drive, about erotic compulsion. In “Gush,” Williams admits, “Tonight, I think I want to be dirty girl” and “I’ll light that ass on fire.” (Do these assertions require further proof?) Sometimes vulgarity is a sign of authenticity and sometimes it is a sign of a lack of imagination and finesse. As one ponders that, “Happy” arrives: a perfectly arranged, celebratory tribute to self-confidence and love and joy: “Clap along if you feel that happiness is the truth,” and “clap along if you know what happiness is to you.” (“Contagiously peppy and brilliantly simple, it seems likely to dominate radio for weeks to come,” wrote Billboard’s music writer of “Happy”; and the song has been hard for a radio listener to miss.)

“Come and Get It Bae” has guitar, lead voice, and chorus, and seems somewhat familiar. Inspired by Prince? Gnarls Barkley? Miley Cyrus is one of the supporting voices, an appealing participation. “Gust of Wind” reminds me of Usher, for the energy of the singing; but the electronic treatment of the principal voice in the song elsewhere is something else—a different vocal color, not bad, although it is not the kind of thing that impresses or interests all listeners (not me). “Lost Queen” combines charm and effrontery in response to an attractive woman. (Is the charm to appeal to her and the effrontery to appeal to his music audience?) Yet, that song, “Lost Queen,” is surprisingly long and its structure rather convoluted, and worth subsequent and more considerate listening. The duet with Alicia Keys, a singer of elegance, thought, and soul, “Know Who You Are,” is one that affirms women. The album Girl closes with a jangly piece of flirtation, “It Girl.” Thus, Pharrell Williams remains a likable music maker.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.