“Someone asked me this a while ago, what inspires me, and I always say, ‘that which is missing.’” Pharrell Williams said those words in response to a question from New York Magazine‘s Nitsuh Abebe back in a June during an interview centered on the producer/songwriter/rapper/fashion designer’s recent emergence as 2013′s summer It Man-Boy. “That which is missing.” It’s a very Pharrell phrase: koan-like, evocative, mysterious and frustrating. With the Pharrell-featuring “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines” doing battle for song of the summer status, the Pharrell-soundtrackedDespicable Me 2 ruling the box office and the Pharrell-produced 2 Chainz track “Feds Watching” creeping up the rap charts, it’s obvious that Skateboard P is dominating the summer. But what’s harder to discern is, to be frank, why now? Why this moment? What was missing?
The answers to those questions only come from looking backwards.There’s a restlessness to Pharrell’s career, a searching quality and a curiosity that makes each subtle reinvention a necessity, not a calculated choice. While Timbaland, the other marquee pop producer of the ’00s, has atrophied stylistically and ballooned physically, Pharrell has gotten sleeker, slicker and harder to define. He’s adjusted his sound and remade his image, but he hasn’t lost that exploratory quality that’s always defined his aesthetic. Thematically, he’s still milking the uneasy tension between chilly sexual menace and funky nostalgic warmth, finding new ways to get lucky and different lines to blur. And he does it all without seeming to age. So the question begs—what’s his secret?
“Rump Shaker”—Wreckx-N-Effect, Hard Or Smooth (1992)
It’s easy to imagine a young Pharrell Williams, born to a schoolteacher and a handyman in Virginia Beach, soaking up the smooth, studio wizard pop and R&B of the 1970s as a teenager and thinking of how he’d bring that playful sensibility to bear on the dissonant, skeletal sounds of hip-hop. He played in the marching band in school, where he met Chad Hugo, his eventual producing partner in the Neptunes and later in the funk-rock side project N.E.R.D. Together, they created music that combined the steely cool of Depeche Mode with the rhythmic warmth of A Tribe Called Quest, eventually landing an internship under New Jack Swing-defining super-producer Teddy Riley, who owned a studio mere blocks from Williams’ high school. The Neptunes template is there on the Riley-produced Wreckx-N-Effect smash “Rump Shaker”: the infectious hook, the disruptive noises, the sense of space. Contrary to popular myth making, the group didn’t produce the song—Williams merely wrote Riley’s verse on the track, not the iconic “zoom zoom zoom” chorus—but you can imagine Williams scribbling notes in the corner, storing away insights for later and imagining his own future rump-shaking anthem.
“Tonight’s The Night”—Blackstreet, Blackstreet (1994)
The Neptunes would land their first production credits on “Tonight’s The Night,” a silky smooth-talk anthem from Riley’s boy band Blackstreet’s self-titled 1994 record, but their signature sound would take some time to evolve. The duo would write curious R&B songs in a similar vein for some time, before landing a plum production credit on “Lookin’ At Me” off Ma$e’s Bad Boy era-defining Harlem World, an album that represents the type of Puff Daddy 1990s excess the Neptunes would eventually strip down to its bare essentials.
“Lookin’ At Me”—Ma$e Harlem World (1997)
“Superthug”—Noreaga, N.O.R.E. (1998)
The Neptunes entered the new millennium with propulsive, aggressive tracks that would go on to define their sound. Noreaga’s “Superthug” is a masterclass in Neptunes-ology: that helicopter swoop, the spindly synth part, the shuffling drums, the shout-y hook. It sounds both alien and familiar, comforting in its construction but startling in its execution. That ability to unsettle expanded in 2000 as The Neptunes hit paydirt with Ludacris’ buzzing banger “Southern Hospitality” and Mystikal’s rattling party-starter “Shake Ya Ass,” two visceral tracks that ignited the charts and established The Neptunes as the vanguard of hip-hop’s funk-fueled sci-fi futurism.
“Shake Ya Ass”—Mystikal, Let’s Get Ready (2000)
When they hooked up with Jay Z for the sweaty “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” they found an ideal collaborator, someone just as obsessed with surface-level shine and unrelenting rhythmic focus. When you hear Pharrell’s thin, wobbly falsetto come into the mix on “I Just Wanna Love U,” you’re immediately transported to a luxurious club floating in the sky. What distinguishes each of these songs is a brash confidence, a pre-swag swagger that remixed the velvet lover-man schtick of 1970s R&B with the brash sexual energy of modern rap. They weren’t inviting you to dance; they were insisting on it. They weren’t opening the doors to their spaceship; they were pulling you into their orbit with a giant buzzing tractor beam. Hold on tight.
“I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)”—Jay Z, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)
“Hot In Herre”—Nelly, Nellyville (2002)
The Hit Maker
The pop world has grabbed guiltlessly from hip-hop’s orbit since the genre’s birth, but pop music turned into a rap arms race in the early 2000s. With artists like Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears looking to make the transition from the sugary, goody-goody Blockbuster pop to a more adult and sexual club-oriented sound, producers like The Neptunes and Timbaland became essential tools for rebranding and repackaging former Disney stars for a more sophisticated mass audience with songs like “Rock Your Body” and “I’m A Slave 4 U.” It’s not dissimilar from Miley Cyrus’ current infatuation with the twerk-friendly anthems of Mike WiLL Made It. Even while collaborating with major pop artists, the Neptunes still had time to work with hip-hop artists who straddled the line between rap and pop, like on Nelly’s “Hot In Herre,” which rode its “Bustin’ Loose” sample to a seven week reign on top of the pop charts.
“Drop It Like It’s Hot”—Snoop Dogg, R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta): The Masterpiece (2004)
It’s this period that will probably forever define The Neptunes in the public imagination, the pair’s work spawning Pharrell’s own chart-dominating hit with Jay Z in 2003 (“Frontin’”), Snoop Dogg’s career-first No. 1 Billboard hit in 2004 (“Drop It Like It’s Hot”) and Gwen Stefani’s defining pop moment in 2005 (“Hollaback Girl”). Pharrell was inescapable within pop culture, but not in a suffocating, Vulcan-death-grip-on-the zeitgeist way. He brought a cheerful, charming touch to his mega-fame, peeking out from the margins of music videos with an impish grin, releasing a joyful Gangsta Grillz mixtape, starting puzzling clothing lines, designing sneakers and playing drums for Sting(!), Dave Matthews(!!) and Vince Gill(!!!) at the Grammy’s. Pop stardom didn’t change him; he remade the pop landscape in his own goofy, skate-rat-turned-auteur image.
“Caught Out There”—Kelis, Kaleidoscope (1999)
The Album Artist
While Pharrell’s reputation as a single-oriented beatmaker will no doubt define him in the public imagination, he also carved out a side career as an album-centric producer who can help shape and define a project’s whole sound. From the fanciful, imaginative disco of Kelis’s 1999 album Kaleidoscope to the metallic, chilling minimalism of Clipse’s 2006Hell Hath No Fury, he showed a knack for pushing artists outside their comfort zones, challenging them to do their best work while experimenting with new, beguiling sounds. The fact that he hasn’t worked as closely on album-length projects with many other artists is probably attributable to his busy schedule and his roaming curiosity, which would make a record-length commitment difficult, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
“Mr. Me Too”—Clipse Hell Hath No Fury (2006)
“One (Your Name)”—Swedish House Mafia, Until One (2010)
Perhaps sensing that the mainstream had moved on—first to the visceral jolt of crunk, then to the soaring communal woos of EDM—Pharrell spent some time hunkered down, tinkering with his sound and working with new artists who helped him add new skills to his toolkit. In 2010 he teamed up with stadium-dance maestros Swedish House Mafia, contributing vocals to a buzzing synth epic that’s the polar opposite of his more restrained, tightly wound early productions, while 2012 saw Williams quietly return to public consciousness, sticking a tentative toe back in the big leagues of hip-hop and pop.
“Sweet Life”—Frank Ocean, Channel Orange (2012)
In addition to landing tracks on big rap records like Rick Ross’ God Forgives, I Don’t and Tyga’s Hotel California, he also explored the handclap-filled sounds of glam-pop with American Idol crooner Adam Lambert on “Trespassing” and dabbled in Stevie Wonder orchestral-soul with Frank Ocean’s “Sweet Life.” Having displayed this broader range and a new sentimental streak, it’s unsurprising that he was tapped by Jay Z to provide the production for “Glory,” the saccharine audio bassinet that introduced baby Blue Ivy to the world. It was time for a rebirth.
“Glory”—Jay Z (2012)
“Blurred Lines”—Robin Thicke, Blurred Lines (2013)
The Pop Elder Statesman
While a lot of ink has been spilled on the prospect of rap superstars like Jay Z growing old in the public eye, the path of hip-hop super-producers has been equally fascinating. Dr. Dre built a headphone empire. Diddy created a TV network. And now Pharrell has become a Quincy Jones-like pop elder statesman. “Blurred Lines,” “Get Lucky,” and “Feds Watching” bear the slippery touch of The Neptunes, but they also reflect a newfound interest in color and warmth. Similarly, Williams’ work on the Despicable Me soundtracks shows a child-like sense of wonder, perhaps attributable to the 2008 birth of his son, the impeccably named Rocket Man Williams. While it’s tempting to imagine the rest of his career playing out in Rick Rubin fashion with Skateboard P serving as a reclusive and roguish conceptualizer for the stars, Williams seems too inquisitive and adventurous to fall into such a clearly defined role. Look for him to become something closer to hip-hop’s version of Trent Reznor, working across multiple platforms and mediums while still pursuing a singular, ever-shifting aesthetic. He won’t be holed up in a secluded studio for the next decade. He’ll be at the Oscars. He’ll be at the Olympics. He’ll be on your iPod. He’ll be everywhere, filling in the gaps we didn’t even know existed.
“Feds Watching”—2 Chainz, B.O.A.T.S. II: #MeTime (2013)