"In My Mind" (Star Trak/Interscope)
* * * 1/2
ALONE and as a member of the Neptunes duo, Pharrell Williams has produced hits by Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Gwen Stefani, among many others, but don't hold that against him. He's also had a hand in meatier music, including Noreaga's "Superthug" and Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot," not to mention the adventurous work of his trio N*E*R*D, which anticipated the rock-soul hybrid of Gnarls Barkley.
His profile as a producer and songwriter has created high anticipation for this long-time-coming debut album of hip-hop and R&B; (in stores Tuesday), not just for its entertainment potential but also for the chance that it will reveal something about an artist who's remained something of an enigmatic charmer so far.
Sure enough, the Virginia native opens up on the fourth song, the autobiographical "Best Friend," remembering himself as a 10-year-old "full of doubt and defeat" and challenging himself to release his repressed feelings: "The weight of the world can really crush one's mind/So let it out P," he repeats, urged on by flurries of crashing cymbals.
There's a lot of heart in that song, and if none of the others quite hits that level, the album's high points have the invention and urgency, if not quite the eloquence, of another producer-turned-artist, Kanye West.
A playful West joins Pharrell on "Number One," a piece of orchestral hip-hop with a sweet sentiment and Steely Dan sophistication in its use of backing vocal choruses.
The album's tour de force might be "Young Girl," a seductive play of vocal and string hooks, rock and rap (from Jay-Z) styles and brilliant little touches (after Pharrell makes a remark about the tabloids, a female chorus chirps "as in People magazine" with insouciant precision).
Pharrell (who slides in and out of his hip-hop identity, Skateboard P) raps well enough, and he sings in both a warm natural register and a rough falsetto in a set of songs that range from lightweight romantic to serious documentary. "In My Mind" sometimes settles for the conventional, but overall this one is too hot to drop.
-- Richard Cromelin