There was a time, back when Pharrell Williams was the single nerdiest human being whose face appeared regularly on Rap City, when Pharrell’s strangulated cat-screech of a falsetto was maybe the most charming thing about him. Back then, Pharrell and Chad Hugo, the Neptunes, were crafting brittle, wriggly, punishing rap beats that sounded like the future of music — or maybe they sounded like the slightly nastier versions of what fellow Virginia Beach producer Timbaland was making at the same time, which is essentially the same thing. The tracks that the Neptunes made during that run — “SuperThug,” “Caught Out There,” “What Happened To That Boy” — made my life immeasurably better. And one of their greatest weapons was that strategically deployed falsetto, a knowingly terrible howling-in-the-shower type of voice that brought the grandiose dick-slinging of their rapper collaborators back down to earth. On something like Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass” or Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” Pharrell’s appearances sent the tracks into euphoric, knowingly goofy half-comedy overdrive. Here was this skinny eel-looking dork in a skater clothes who jumped on some of the biggest rap tracks of the day and wailed pinched nonsense with absolute otherworldly confidence, and I loved it so much. Things got a little muddled around the time Pharrell released 2003′s “Frontin’,” his first solo single, a vaguely terrible lounge-funk midtempo jam that gave the discomfiting impression that Pharrell thought he could maybe sing. It was an uneven road for Pharrell over the decade that followed — moments of unimpeachable brilliance followed by moments of embarrassing bullshit — but he finally put it together in a run of singles last year that rivaled anything he’d ever done. And I’m delighted to report that on G I R L, his second solo album, Pharrell has found some ideal Venn-diagram crossover zone where the sly dorkiness of his early years has met the actual vocal chops he’s developed in the years since. Somehow, when nobody was looking, Pharrell became one of the most likable singers in pop. And now he’s made one of the most likable pop albums in recent memory — a small, tight, welcoming LP of sun-blasted disco-funk mood music.
More than even “Get Lucky” or “Blurred Lines,” the catalyst for G I R L is “Happy,” the slow-bubbling Despicable Me 2 soundtrack song that’s up for an Oscar and, as of yesterday, the #1 song in the country — all this, for a song from a movie that hasn’t been in the theater for months. “Happy” has some of the same simplistic crowd-pleasing retro shamelessness as past inescapable smashes like “Hey Ya” and “Fuck You,” and it’s less syncopated than anything else on G I R L. But its real importance to the album is this: It’s the first Pharrell solo single that packs in all the mystic utopian mumbo-jumbo of his work with N.E.R.D. while still sounding like a sharp, finely honed, undeniable pop song. It’s the biggest (and really, maybe the only) Pharrell solo hit because it sounds like Pharrell and it sounds like a hit. In years past, as he discusses in this GQ article, he’s tried to make hits for himself without putting any purpose into it. With “Happy,” though, he figured out how to condense his own goofily lovable personality into four minutes of ray-of-sunshine popcraft.
That’s the entire idea here. G I R L is only ten songs long, and it’s possible to imagine any of them, with the exception of the lost-the-plot eight-minute in-love-with-an-alien odyssey “Lost Queen,” dominating pop radio. Pharrell has said silly things in interviews about how the album is dedicated to every woman ever and how the human race wouldn’t exist without them, but he’s balanced that Aquarian new-age talk with the insinuating skeeziness he displayed on “Blurred Lines.” And he’s kept the album short and tight, almost completely excising the bullshit experiments that have derailed so many N.E.R.D. albums. As he showed in his verse on Future’s “Move That Dope,” he’s better at rapping now than he’s ever been, but Pharrell doesn’t rap a word on G I R L. Instead, he’s zoned in on the affable-loverman-weirdo side that came across so distinctly on “Get Lucky.”
The songs on G I R L won’t linger with you or force you to think about anything. After listening to the album on repeat for a couple of days, the one lyric that sticks with me is the very worst one: “Duck Dynasty is cool and all / But they ain’t got nothing on a female’s call.” (I want Morrissey to corral Pharrell backstage at Coachella or someplace and explain in great detail why Duck Dynasty is not cool and all.) But if the album is as airy and substance-free as a Twinkie, it also gives that instant-satisfaction sugar-rush. The first half, in particular, is an absolute blast, all laser-precise high-stepping pop-funk aimed clearly at your brain’s pleasure centers and nowhere else. “Hunter” sounds like some future society painstakingly re-creating the stuff James Brown’s backing band was playing in 1968, getting everything wrong but discovering some new strain of bubbly robo-funk in the process. “Marilyn Monroe” goes from glorious cinematic orchestral introduction to synth-augmented Off The Wall with thrilling panache. “Gush” is Pharrell’s best Prince rip in years, and given time, I might like it even more than Prince’s Pharrell rip “Black Sweat.” “Brand New” imports the class-clown beatboxing of Justin Timberlake’s Neptunes-produced “Rock Your Body” and then somehow rigs the game so that Pharrell can outsing Timberlake. Even before “Happy” shows up at track five, the smiles-per-minute ratio of the album’s first side is out of control.
The second half starts just as buoyant, with Pharrell and Miley Cyrus exchanging lusty come-ons over rubber guitar stabs. (I get that people hate Miley, but she sounds awesome here.) The turning point here is “Gust Of Wind,” Pharrell’s third collaboration with Daft Punk (or, if you count the Neptunes’ frankly terrible “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” remix, the fourth). “Gust Of Wind” is lush and impressive, but it’s closer in tone to Daft Punk’s Steely Dan pastiche “Fragments Of Time” than to either of the Pharrell/Nile Rodgers tracks on Random Access Memories. Especially in contrast to the sparse, sprightly pop-funk of the tracks that came before, “Gust Of Wind” is a midtempo lope that’s stuffed to the point of bursting. After that, we get the ill-advised “Lost Queen” and “Know Who You Are,” a piece of Police-esque new-wavey reggae fluff with a surprisingly game Alicia Keys. Things only inch back into straight-up party territory with “It Girl,” the closer, and even then, the mood doesn’t entirely come back up. Still, even if I prefer the more bubbly tracks of the album’s first half, there are things to like in every song on G I R L. And Pharrell sells every song with the same joyous dork-out fervor that’s turned him, once again, into a star. G I R L isn’t some moment-defining masterpiece, and it has no ambitions at being one. Instead, it’s an album that’ll make my spring, and maybe yours, just a bit more pleasant. That’s good enough for me.
G I R L is out 3/3 on Columbia. Stream it at iTunes.