These days, Virginia Beach producer and vocalist Pharrell can do no wrong. Whether it’s producing Marvin Gaye-inspired pop hits, crooning over cheesy French disco or wearing a hat that looks like it was tailored for Smokey the Bear, the seemingly ageless falsetto manages to always come off cool. As a result, he’s become a go-to tastemaker for fashion, music, art and—perhaps most of all—being different. Hear him talk about anything—Zen gardens, Portuguese literature, neurological phenomenons that make you see colors—and you begin to understand his appreciation for anything that presents the world in a unique way. This openness to the abnormal, which he’s always worn as a badge of honor, has somehow manifested itself into an aura of elegance and wisdom, making him both a sort-of guru to the hip-hop world and a hero to weird skater kids.
But, despite being a trendsetter for quite some time now, the quality of his own art hasn’t always matched that of his taste. Case in point: In My Mind, his over-cooked 2006 solo debut. On it, the Neptunes member spat crude boasts about sex and money over beats that were as shiny as they were hollow. It felt forced and uninspired, and Pharrell knew it, which led to him vowing to never release another solo record. Luckily, after some convincing from Columbia Records, he’s changed his mind and created the album he’s always wanted in G I R L, a project that owes its heart to pop greats like Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and even Justin Timberlake, but still stands as an intimate look at the man behind some of the most intriguing art of the past two decades.
The album starts with a flourish of strings scored by Oscar-award winning composer Hans Zimmer, and things only get more elaborate from there. The songs on G I R L are sweeping and intricate, built on live instrumentation and infectious melodies. Most of them draw inspiration from the pop music of the ’70s and ’80s, with some featuring the same strumming guitar riffs that made “Get Lucky,” Pharrell’s summer smash with Daft Punk and Chic producer Niles Rogers, sound authentically retro. “Brand New,” for example, draws you back to the classic-two step soul of the Jackson Five, while the cooing chorus of the Miley Cyrus-assisted “Come Get It Bae” conjures up images of purple smoke and a velvet-clad Prince. But it’s not entirely a throwback affair; many of the album’s songs feature sounds that Pharrell and his Neptunes partner Chad Hugo have been using for years, like the claps on “It Girl” and the Korg guitar strum on “Hunter.” Overall, the production comes off more polished and thought out than any of Pharrell’s musical projects of the past, including those as a part of punky hip-hop trio N.E.R.D.
As you can guess by the album’s title, Pharrell spends most of these songs singing about women. He presents a distinctly male perspective on the power of them, both in terms of their sexuality and their influence on how the world runs. At times, it borders on the line of objectification, especially on the raunchy “Gush,” but he never comes off seedy or too strong, like he did at points on In My Mind. Instead, he seems like a guy who’s simply in awe of the beauty and strength of women. Tracks like “It Girl” and the percussion-heavy “Lost Queen” serve as odes rather than sexual exploits. And the album’s overall tone of positivity and lightheartedness—exemplified in the insanely catchy lead single “Happy”—further instills the idea that G I R L really is just one big love letter.
This is not to say it doesn’t have its flaws, however. Pharrell’s voice is soft and warm and perfect for throwing out heart-tingling cries and coos, but it begins to ware down after a while, with it especially struggling sometimes in the spaces between choruses. What’s more, although the album’s production is consistent and pleasing, it’s guitar driven sound becomes a little repetitive at some points; melodic, string-laced songs like the Daft Punk-featured “Gust Of Wind” serve as much-needed changes of pace in the album’s tone. But these are small errors in an otherwise successful effort by Pharrell. G I R L not only represents a proper representation of his creativity, but, with high-profile guest spots (Timberlake, Cyrus, Daft Punk) and a number of radio-ready singles, it should also be a success on the charts and further his reputation as a pop icon. Let the man’s hot streak continue.—Reed Jackson