Smoothed-Out Summer: How Pharrell Came to Dominate Pop, Again

July 31, 2013 | Brandon Soderberg

It is the summer of Pharrell Williams. The producer/crooner/rapper’s voice and new-age without the nuance outlook are currently coursing through two of the summer’s biggest hits: Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” It’s a strange moment for the 40 year old, who, with the legendary production duo the Neptunes, turned early 2000s radio into a rigid rap robot funk party, and then seemingly lost the map. Caught up in a budget Chopra schtick and an all-in embrace of smoothed-out, falsetto-laden tracks, Williams chased the 2003 success of the Jay Z-featured Neptunes’ hit “Frontin‘,” to often delightful though undoubtedly diminishing returns.

In My Mind, Pharrell’s 2006 solo mostly singin’, some rappin’, ’80s slow jam-soaked debut was considered a failure; his funk-rock group N.E.R.D with Shae Haley and fellow Neptune Chad Hugo got too comfortable after 2002’s In Search Of…; By the mid-2000s, save for the critical reception of Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury, Pharrell was floundering. Often, Neptunes productions were relegated to eccentric album cuts, and a look at the Wikipedia entry for their discography shows a shocking number of songs that just never made it onto albums at all.

He began getting in where he could fit in, which meant everything from assisting Common with the retro-futuristic fail Universal Mind Control, to collaborating with proto-Ke$ha white girl MC Uffie on “A.D.D. S.U.V.,” and just generally building up a reputation as something of a charming enough cornball. He also did some very daring things like provide kids flick Despicable Me with a jaunty soundtrack and produce an entire album with Gloria Estefan called Miss Little Havana, though neither garnered the attention it deserved.

So, how did Pharrell Williams come to dominate radio again? Mostly, he just dug his heels in and cluelessly continued mining the lithe, airy style that got him in trouble in the first place. He waited for everybody’s ears to get weird like his. Neither “Get Lucky” nor “Blurred Lines” have much to do with the Neptunes sound that brought Williams and Chad Hugo so much success; both are fun in a retrolicious, goofy way that recalls Pharrell’s much-hated mid-2000s aesthetic. “Get Lucky” is a spiritual slow jam, that in a sense (thanks to Daft Punk and Nile Rodgers of Chic), is the widescreen version of In My Mind cuts like “That Girl” or “Angel.” As for “Blurred Lines,” well, it’s a kind of cheery dork-funk riff on Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up Pt. 1.” Half a decade ago, it would have been an odd-bird N.E.R.D interpretation of the Marvin hit with some cult appeal and nothing more.

Further proof that Pharrell’s smoothness has won the hearts and minds of radio and rap listeners once completely averse to these sounds? The two Pharrell-fronted hip-hop singles around right now, aren’t sticking. 2 Chainz’s “Feds Watching,” an ’80s-tinged yacht rap anthem, and Azealia Banks’ “ATM Jam,” which is clearly aiming for a dance-rap version of Noreaga’s “Super Thug” or Clipse’s “Grindin,” are essentially non-starting singles. Music is just significantly more “chilled out” right now, and these facsimiles of Neptunes-in-their-prime beats fall flat because no one listening to the radio is checking for waves of hard drums kicking around.

The timing is just right, as well. Enough time has passed since the Neptunes’ 1998-2004 banger-making manic reign that a youthful generation just knows Williams as goofy crooner. Notice how he’s taken to collaborating with ’90s babies like Tyler, the Creator and Mac Miller, lately. And 2013 began, for all intents and purposes, with Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie,” which sounds way more like latter day Pharrell than it does any other Timbaland/Timberlake collaborations. Its massive success helped pave the way for “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines” (also, see a track like Chris Brown’s “Fine China,” a Michael Jackson pastiche filtered through the gulp of In My Mind‘s R&B). The first half of Thicke’s album Blurred Lines, from the lackadaisical groove of “Blurred Lines” to “Get In My Way,” which might as well be a Cameo deep album cut, is squarely in Pharrell territory.

You don’t have the cheeky sophisto-soul of Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience without Pharrell Williams, who in 2002 hammered N*Sync’s vaguely soulful qualities into a turn-of-the-millenium, whiteboy MJ proto-swag on Timberlake’s debut, Justified. And now, it is Timberlake’s refined comeback, equal parts ambitious and backed by a machine that pushed a patient album at a time when EDM thump and wub was wearing thin, that has enabled Pharrell’s radio return. That’s the kind of circular beauty that Williams, who once called himself “black Carl Sagan,” who croons about phoenixes rising on “Get Lucky,” and goofily encourages good vibes on the intro to “Blurred Lines,” can appreciate.