Pharrell – G I R L
Record Label: I Am Other / Columbia
Release Date: March 3 2014
The songs “Blurred Lines,” “Get Lucky,” and “Happy,” are three of the biggest hits of 2013, had something in common; think about it, what were they? Well, they all had a similar sound, all channeling 1970s funk and soul. Secondly, they were basically about sex, but “Get Lucky” was subtle about it, and “Happy” is merely about being happy, but it can apply to that, I suppose. While those are good answers, but the third thing, and the thing that’s mainly on my mind, is that one musician was a part of all three songs. Who is it? Well, it’s Pharrell Williams. During last year, if anyone said his name, you’d most likely ask, “Who?” And that would have been rather typical, because he wasn’t a household name, despite having been a part of many projects and songs. He’s a very well known producer, but as a solo artist, he’s only released one album, 2006’s In My Mind. It’s been eight years since he’s released an album, but with the success of “Get Lucky,” “Blurred Lines,” and “Happy,” Pharrell was asked to make a new solo record, and the news came up out of nowhere; the album was announced in February then came out just a few weeks later. The lead single, “Happy,” was out for a long time, being the theme of the film Despicable Me 2, but other than that, not much was known about the album. It was a given, however, that Williams would explore more of the funk/soul sounds in the songs he was a part of last year, so how does sophomore LP G I R L turn out?
Surprisingly, it’s a record that, well, took me by surprise. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into it, but the album was streaming on iTunes the week before its release, so I decided to give it a listen. What I got was a very interesting blend of modern pop music and 1970s funk/soul/R&B. To put it simply, G I R L is one of the best pop records I’ve heard in quite a long time. One of the best records I’ve heard? No, not quite, but for being a pop record, it hits most of its marks. The best thing about it is how it tackles its faux-retro sound. The album features Justin Timberlake on second track “Brand New,” and JT released The 20/20 Experience a little more than a year ago to critical acclaim. The first part of the album does ultimately what G I R L is doing as well; taking retro influence and tweaking it with the artist’s own distinct pop style. JT went into a softer direction, with more R&B and soul direction, channeling his inner Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye at times, while Pharrell is channeling his inner MJ, but also adding more, including The Commodores and Earth Wind & Fire. His influences are more funk-based, and the album is much more energetic, but still just as hard hitting and catchy. The 20/20 Experience did a very successful job at taking those influences, but also adding JT’s own style to the record, going into a more “experimental” approach akin to Frank Ocean in some places. Williams just does what he does best – making catchy pop songs that will be stuck in your head for hours. “Happy” is the main example of that.
In all three songs that I mentioned at the beginning, Williams employs his very distinct falsetto, and most people either seem to love it or hate it. I’m in the middle with it, frankly; his voice is very unique and distinct, and he can certainly sing, but at some points, his voice gets really annoying. On tracks like “Hunter,” “Gush,” and even “Gust of Wind,” he almost wails. And aside from that, he also sort of raps and talk-sings as well in these songs. It’s rather strange, and it doesn’t really work for him. But on the plus side, songs like “Lost Queen,” “Happy,” and “Marilyn Monroe,” Williams is great. His voice is exactly what the songs need. Even if his voice doesn’t quite work on some songs, he’s still very charismatic, a ton of fun to listen to, and on a song like “Happy,” he sells it. He sounds like he’s having so much fun singing, it’s hard not to smile and be happy with him. His vocals are more enjoyable than they, well, aren’t. They’re not perfect, but the songs where he shines, he really shines. There are also a few guest spots, too, and they all do mildly well. JT, as I mentioned, has a spot on “Brand New,” Miley Cyrus has an uncredited guest spot on “Come Get It Bae,” and Daft Punk reunite with Williams on “Gust of Wind.” Alicia Keys also a guest spot on “Know Who You Are.” These are pretty decent artists to have on a record like this, with the exception of Cyrus, whom is merely in the background of her song, and isn’t obnoxiously or annoying.
That’s not the case of the lyrics, however; the nostalgia/retro factor is my favorite of this album, with the instrumentation being a part of that, and my least favorite part are the lyrics. The album is supposed to be about Williams’ appreciation and celebration of women, and most critics have said it works or it doesn’t. Again, with his vocals, I’m in the middle. It works in some places, but not in others. A song like “Lost Queen” is a perfect song to use if he’s celebrating women, because that’s exactly what the song does; Williams talks about a woman he’s dating as though she is essentially a “lost queen.” He compares her to an alien by wondering if there are other women where she comes from that are like her, and the song is definitely celebrating how wonderful this woman is to him. Other songs, however, like “Gush,” “Come Get It Bae,” and “Hunter,” don’t quite hit that mark. To be completely honest, “Gush” is my least favorite song on the LP; its sound is nice, but the lyrics just make me cringe. It attempts to be sensual and sexy, but it’s not. I’m sorry, Pharrell, but “gush” is not a sexy word. It sounds gross. “Come Get It Bae,” on the other hand, isn’t necessarily gross, but it’s still cringing, because it talks about having sex with motorcycle innuendos. As one critic that I follow quite a bit pointed out, Bruce Springsteen could make a song like this work (with more subtlety, however), but Pharrell really doesn’t. “Hunter” is a track that is just bizarre lyrically; Williams has said that the song is written in the perspective of a woman, but it doesn’t quite make sense, so just looking at the song, it’s about Williams metaphorically hunting down a woman.
Aside from the odd “story” of the song, this and couple of other songs, do have one of my slight nitpicks with the album, and that’s the insertion of pop culture references that don’t really make sense. In “Hunter,” Williams makes a Duck Dynasty reference, and while it fits in the song, it’s not timeless, it’s not clever, it’s not even worth a laugh. It’s odd, and cringing, to some degree. And in “Lost Queen,” he makes a Geico reference, which is sort of clever, but even then, the pop culture references take me out of the nostalgia and the retro vibes of the record. Other songs, however, like “Gust of Wind,” “It Girl,” and even “Brand New,” aren’t necessarily bad lyrically, but they’re just boring. They don’t feature pop culture references, but the lyrics are either bland or decent. Very few tracks have any worthwhile lyrics, aside from “Lost Queen,” and “Happy.”
Going along with the nostalgia the retro sound that this album has, the instrumentation plays an important part in that, and to put it simply, this does sound like a funk record from the 1970s in some places. But at the same time, Williams does add his own unique flavor to it. A song like “Gust of Wind,” which features Daft Punk on the chorus, has a very funk feel to it, and it sounds like it would be a song from the 1970s, but with Daft Punk sounding very robotic, it sticks out a little. Another song that really stuck out to me instrumentally was “Lost Queen,” because while it’s the only R&B song on the album, it has a very African texture to it, and it sounds really interesting to hear. There’s also a hidden track towards the second half, which continues the R&B trend, but is more simplistic. If there is one song, however, worth talking about, it’s “Happy.” This is the best song on the record, and it’s because it shows all of Williams’ strengths; his falsetto, his knack for a catchy chorus, and the instrumentation that sounds very retro, but still works in today’s market.
Pharrell Williams isn’t an artist I can say I love, and it’s partially because I’m not familiar with his work, but after this LP, I do feel the same way. It’s not a record I’m crazy about, like I was with The 20/20 Experience, but it’s still a fun and catchy record. It’s got nothing offensive, even if some lyrics are cringe-worthy. It’s worth a listen if you are a fan of R&B, soul, funk, or pop music. Pharrell’s one of the top producers in pop music right now, and one of the best things about it is the production. I’m quite happy that I gave this album a listen, and what a coincidence, “Happy” is my favorite song. Hopefully you’ll have the same reaction if and/or when you listen to it, too.
Overall rating: 8.3/10