In any major city in the world, there are certain hotels where the cool kids stay. The hip set, young actors, musicians, artists. But one look at the lobby of the Four Seasons in Midtown Manhattan, and it becomes clear that this isn’t one of those hotels. It’s a nice place to stay, sure—obsequious concierge, famously expensive rooms—but it’s a different kind of nice. It’s Botox and inheritance nice. Vague European accent and air-kisses nice. “Hey, that’s the wife on Everybody Loves Raymond!” nice.
Hold up, though. Wait a minute. Because the other kind of nice just stepped out from the elevator bay. Sauntered, really. Slow enough that, if gauging his velocity and the distracted look on his face, you might think the world was swirling around him at double speed. But that’s Pharrell Williams for you. Dude moves at his own pace, and things are just gonna have to adapt to him.
Take, for instance, the black and pink silk Louis Vuitton handkerchief knotted around his neck, making him look like a flamboyant Jesse James relaxing after a hard day of robbing trains. Or his chain: cartoonishly oversized links, each a different color diamond—blue, yellow, pink, white; a charm featuring a cartoon version of himself with his N.E.R.D. mates, Chad and Shay, and his dog, Dookey. You don’t know whether he got it at Jacob’s or Toys “R” Us.
But we’ve known for a minute now that Pharrell marches to the beat of his own synth-accompanied drum. From the earliest Neptunes productions, he’s been developing a curious falsetto croon that straddles the line between parody and genius. He and partner Chad Hugo have been flirting with styles, blurring the boundaries between musical genres, establishing themselves as the go-to hit factory for… Has it really been eight years since Noreaga’s “SuperThug”?
They came up under new jack swing king Teddy Riley, but the Neptunes’ success started with rap. Nore’s smash, Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass,” ODB’s “Got Your Money.” They passed us the Clipse and the Courvoisier and made it “Hot in Herre” for Nelly. Jigga and Snoop have been steady beneficiaries of ’Tunes tunes, with Snoop going so far as to put out 2004’s R&G: The Masterpiece on their Star Trak label. As the Neptunes’ profile rose steadily through the first half of this decade, though, they proved themselves way beyond generic categorization. (N.E.R.D. is a rock band, really. Or is it funk?) And the likes of Britney Spears (“I’m a Slave 4 U”), Justin Timberlake (“Like I Love You”) and Gwen Stefani (“Hollaback Girl”) have sought, and been granted, the ’Tunes’ platinum touch. And through it all, Pharrell’s been the visible one, the cocky extrovert to Chad’s quiet family man. But somehow, even though he teased people with “Frontin’” a few years back, he’s never gone strictly for dolo. Until now.
See, he’s in New York for an appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman to promote his upcoming solo debut, In My Mind. It seems impossible, given the rise of his celebrity over the past few years, but this CD is truly his first outing on his own—no Chad, no Shay, no Snoop, no Jay-Z (well, maybe on one song). He made the beats, he played the instruments, he sang the hooks. All par for the course. But this time, he also wrote all the rhymes. So it’s a test: Is the world ready for Microphone P?
Walking across the lobby, he proffers a fist to bump—a dangerous proposition, given the size and edges of the Burmese sapphire he wears on his left hand. He finds a couch off in a corner, away from curious stares (“Must be a rapper,” whisper some ladies while lunching), and he sits and talks about work. About his production process. About his decision, after all these years of making beats with Chad and lending his voice to other folks, to finally do an album all by himself. He answers questions obligingly, but you can tell it’s no fun for him. He seems uncomfortable: He leans back and looks at the ceiling; he looks at his phone; he looks at… Let’s just say he looks around a lot.
“I just felt like I needed to do it,” he says, of putting In My Mind together. “Something about these songs, I kept going, ‘Yo, I can’t see nobody else doing this but me.’ It was almost like the music itself dictating it.”
He goes on: “There’s a lot of good music out there. But at the same time, I felt that… You know when you’re watching TV late at night, and you’re about to fall asleep, everything’s just monotone? Everything is the same. There’s a lot of people copying music other people have already done. So it makes for an even sound. Just…bland. I feel like I want to wake up society, put the fire under some muthafuckas.”
All of a sudden, he sits up. Perks up. “You really think XXL wants to hear about the beats? I talk about that with magazines all the time.” Fair enough. We cede the floor to the honorable gentleman from Virginia:
Fuck the beats—who’s the guy? Because that’s what it all comes down to. The beat is a fruit from the tree, right? The tree would be me and my life and how I’ve grown. The seed would be where it was planted, and what kind of things in that environment allowed it to grow. I came from Atlantis Apartments, a housing project in Virginia Beach—and that’s where all my best friends ended up dead, in jail, shot, or on drugs. I moved to the suburbs when I was 7-and-a-half.