Bringing the happy

Bringing the happy

New favourite

Bringing the happy

The magic of William Pharrell's music lies in rendering an old idea afresh, and it strikes a chord with the audience due to its pacing and rhythm, writes Jon caramanica...

It can probably all be explained by the hat, the indelible success of Pharrell Williams. The hat, of course, is the signature Vivienne Westwood mountain hat that he wore to the Grammys in January. Sitting atop his head as if it were pasted on with adhesive, the hat — part cowboy, part park ranger — added several inches to his height and several months to his cultural relevance.

With one small stroke — almost an afterthought, given that he’d bought the hat several years before — Williams managed to redraw himself completely.

That night, he was a performer, a winner several times over, including for producer of the year, and also a very slick, gentle disruption. But, that is Williams in a nutshell: taking an old idea, something that’s been in currency for quite some time, and, with a touch of panache and a willingness to look slightly out of place, make it seem utterly new.

He makes the familiar seem idiosyncratic. Now 40, Williams has been producing and writing songs for more than two decades, first a force in hip-hop and R&B, and later in pop. After a brief lull out of the spotlight, he’s been one of the most transformative music figures of the last year, with his hands on two of 2013’s biggest singles, Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines and Daft Punk’s Get Lucky.

Second albumAnd now there’s ‘G I R L’ (Columbia), his second album as a solo performer. It’s intensely catchy and harmlessly empty, and succeeds largely because of Williams’s bravery at standing firm on territory no one else is trying to claim. The sunny ‘G I R L’ — which Williams wrote, produced and sung almost in its entirety — reaches back to the utopian black pop of the ’70s and early ’80s, full of soft funk and cushy soul.

It’s an overwhelmingly positive album, cheery in mood and instrumentation, as if Williams knows something the rest of us do not.

Take Happy, which first appeared on the soundtrack of Despicable Me 2 and which was nominated for best original song at the Oscars this year, at which Williams also performed. The song is unrelentingly bright, like a peek of unfiltered sun between clouds on an overcast day.

“Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof,” Williams sings. “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.”

Were you so inclined — and certainly you are not — you could watch the 24-hour video for the song, with guest appearances from Jamie Foxx, Jimmy Kimmel and the rap collective Odd Future, among others. Again, this is 24 literal hours of happiness, punishment-level glee.

And yet Happy, which is out of lock step with almost the whole of pop music, reached No 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Williams may be the most prominent pop music figure to have identified a bubbling shift away from cynicism in youth culture, or he may be the first person to make adult-contemporary pop that actually sounds contemporary. Either way, he manages to tap into broad pleasures while coming off like a minimalist or an aesthete. There are moments of musical ostentation on ‘G I R L’, but they are few. 

Instead, Williams delivers a gut check of pared-down R&B and disco with almost military rigor. Lost Queen is among the highlights — a virtual lullaby, with nods to The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Dance-floor strings pulse vibrantly through Gust of Wind, Gush and Marilyn Monroe. I Know Who You Are has the faintest contour of lovers-rock reggae, with Alicia Keys singing dully about empowerment. (In fairness, Keys’s voice was not built for subtlety.)

Brand New, with its wanton Jackson 5 horn homage, shows that Williams hasn’t been too troubled by the lawsuit filed by the heirs of Marvin Gaye, who alleged that Blurred Lines was too derivative of Gaye’s work without proper remuneration.

Justin Timberlake sings on this song, and Williams manages to de-emphasise him, turning an unfair vocal fight into a clear victory for Williams.

None of the ideas on these songs are original, but they are for the most part out of fashion, and therefore Williams’ boldness and facility with them feels refreshing. The album is a light massage, fingertips gently brushing your back, a reminder of deeper and more nuanced pleasure.

Williams has always been a believer in sketches. Most of the genre-shifting beats he made as half of the Neptunes (alongside Chad Hugo) — Clipse’s Grindin, Snoop Dogg’s Drop It Like It’s Hot, and so many more — were mere outlines, emphatic in their simplicity. Williams is an expert at pointing a listener in a direction, then stepping out of the way, confident that the rest of the path is clear.

Quiet influenceAs a performer, Williams is a true chameleon, but he has no natural home. He’s a tremendous accent piece, but can you build a room around him? He has a neutral, almost ahistoric voice. He’s not a powerful singer — so many times on this album, his vocals are thickened, bolstered with harmonies, and so on. His tone is unmistakable, but his force is on loan.

And there’s nothing gnomic about his lyrics — coming from almost anyone else, they’d be pilloried for excess simplicity. Plenty of times on this album, he sings lines that are vexing: “Duck Dynasty’ is cool and all / But they got nothing on the female’s call,” on Hunter.

On Marilyn Monroe, he sings lyrics that sound like Mad Libs: “We cannot help who/We’re attracted to/So let’s all dance and elevate each other.”

Instead, where Williams excels is in pacing and rhythm, and finding pockets of delivery that feel intuitive, or at least lined so deeply with historical memory that they’re instantly familiar and comforting.

He sings in a percussive manner, full of vocal stabs, and his voice congeals easily into a sweet coo, precise and seemingly effortless. Williams has released one other solo album — ‘In My Mind’, in 2006. This was a different Pharrell — mostly a rapper, a wry braggart, bawdy and thrilled to get away with it.

He hadn’t yet transcended category. But Williams has shifted the culture in a fashion similar to ‘G I R L’ once before. As the Neptunes were reaching their commercial peak as pop and hip-hop producers, they chose to spend that clout by effectively reformatting (with the addition of a vocalist) into a rock band, N.E.R.D.

The debut N.E.R.D. album, ‘In Search Of ...’, originally released in 2001, was a brilliant hodgepodge of rock, soul, electro, hip-hop and more, the tablet on which Williams laid out his polyglot vision. It had no clear precursor, and no clear peers.

And though it wasn’t a breakthrough commercial success, it’s been a quiet influence in the years since. Like ‘G I R L’, and like that hat, that, too, was something dug out from the back of the closet, a backward look that turned out to be the way forward.