If the hat fits: how Pharrell got Happy
Published 09/03/2014 | 02:30
It's the era of the super-producer, we are told. Forget Gaga and Bey – the real powerbrokers in modern pop, runs the theory, are behind-the-scenes players such as Katy Perry collaborator Dr Luke and Justin Timberlake wingman Timbaland. You turn the radio on and their sound is inescapable. The artists change, the sonic aesthetic remains the same.
There is some validity to the argument. The same pool of half-a-dozen producers and composers seem to have had a hand in most of the pop anthems of the past half-decade. Still, if this is the age of the back-room operator, perhaps it is about to enter its declining phase. Certainly, one uber-producer at least has had his fill of thankless (albeit lucrative) anonymity and is shooting for old fashioned, magazine-cover stardom.
Actually, Pharrell Williams is already a star several times over. You will, of course, know him from Daft Punk's Get Lucky, the throwaway disco distraction you couldn't get out of your head last summer. Even if the tune somehow managed to bypass you, Daft Punk's performance at the Grammys will likely have caught your attention – if only for the vast Vivienne Westwood hat sported by Pharrell (almost certainly the first item of headgear to trend on Twitter).
Williams doubled down on the exposure with recent hit Happy, a slight, silly ode to unthinking cheerfulness, which has outgrown its origins as mere soundtrack filler (from kids' movie Despicable Me 2 of all things) to achieve worldwide ubiquity. Now he's followed through with his second solo album, Girl, a proudly vintage affair which sees him once again trying various hats on for size, albeit this time in a mostly figurative sense.
Shamelessly, Pharrell rifles his record collection – or, more accurately, the playlist from your local Top 40 radio station – for inspiration.
There are winks towards Michael Jackson, prominent nods towards Prince and Jay-Z. It isn't a mind-blowing album – in fact, it might not even be a very good one. But it does do something remarkable, drawing a magic marker circle around Pharrell's pop-star aspirations and thus removing him from the producer 'zone', where he has, to one degree or another, languished for most of his career.
This was a taller ask than you might imagine. Through the early 2000s, Pharrell and his production partner Chad Hugo dominated the charts to an extent perhaps not witnessed before or since. Operating as 'The Neptunes' they worked with Christina Aguilera, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg and literally dozens of others. At one point it is estimated that 40 per cent of songs on American radio had been midwifed by the pair.
What's interesting is that while The Neptunes seems to have sufficed for Hugo, for Pharrell, off-screen kudos was not enough. Though introspective in person – to the point where he can come across as blunt – it is self-evident that Pharrell has always regarded himself as a star, rather than a support player. Thus, through The Neptunes' glory run, he never could let go of his dream of crashing the pop A-list he had done so much to create.
Alas, the genius for songwriting and arrangement he brought to other's music deserted him when turned inwards. With his band NERD, he released a brace of very forgettable LPs – a subsequent solo album was worse yet, consisting of series of turgid raps which mostly featured Pharrell bragging about his blinged-up lifestyle.
Far from a shock, his inability to trade up to stardom was entirely predictable. Since the dawn of pop, producers have sought to cash in on their reputations – and have almost always come unstuck.
Consider Timbaland, with whom Pharrell actually grew up in Virginia Beach, the largest city in Virginia state. Having produced Justin Timberlake's opus-like 2005 hit FutureSex/LoveSounds, he promptly put out his own record – only for it to slip beneath the waves without a trace.
A similar fate was suffered by the Swedish production partnership Bloodshy and Avant (Jennifer Lopez, Madonna), whose Miike Snow project has proved endlessly underwhelming. Far from advantageous, it seems a reputation as a mixing desk conjurer actually holds musicians back.
Really, it's no mystery that Pharrell and Timbaland should struggle to become established performers in their own right. A solid songwriter is not the same thing as a natural-born pop star. Rihanna rarely pens her own material, yet, as anyone who has seen her in concert will attest, her charisma could light an ocean liner.
With a little help from Vivienne Westwood and a lot from Daft Punk, Pharrell has, for now, shirked gravity and achieved solo career lift-off. It is too early to tell whether he continues to soar or will eventually crash. Either way, at least he gets to keep the hat.
THE ALBUM GIRL IS OUT NOW.