As per its title, Pharrell Williams’ first album in eight years is singularly focused on girls. No women or ladies appear through the 10 songs that make up the album, let alone any other men. (There is one queen, but she’s from outer space.)
Best known these days for his falsetto voice heard on Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” singer-producer Pharrell doubles down on his pursuit of mainstream superstardom on “Girl,” but in the process reveals his weaknesses as well.
A voracious listener able to write rock, rap, pop and R&B songs with equal skill, Pharrell on “Girl” seems to be gunning for solo pop ubiquity, and to that end it’s an extra-large success. Beat-wise, pop doesn’t get any more modern than this. In addition to the No. 1 hit “Happy,” there’s a queue of at least four other would-be chart-toppers within: “Brand New,” “Gust of Wind,” “I Know Who You Are” and “Come Get It Bae,” each more banging than the next. At its catchy best, the release suggests an artist who’s been stockpiling choice beats to pit against the biggest albums of the decade.
Self-produced to glistening perfection and filled with giddy hooks, the album features disco string arrangements courtesy of Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer and star-studded cameos from Miley Cyrus, Alicia Keys, Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk.
Musically, “Girl” features a vroom-vroom vibe that combines classic Jackson 5 bounce and Prince-style funk with the maximalist-disco feel of Daft Punk and Justin Timberlake’s recent work. Dotted with the thunderous polyrhythms that have come to define Pharrell’s production work as a solo artist and as part of the Neptunes, the album feels like a jukebox of future club jams, with a few slower ballads for obligatory cuddle time.
When Pharrell hat-tips Debbie Harry’s 1980s’ flow on “Hunter,” you can hear the faint echoes of an era, and it serves as a reminder that Pharrell’s been around long enough to have worked with early ‘90s R&B group Blackstreet and hip-hoppers Wreckx-N-Effect. Few are the producers who remain credible whether producing Madonna and Britney or Schoolboy Q and Earl Sweatshirt. But, then, as part of the Neptunes, Pharrell is responsible for Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” so he long ago earned his bona fides as a party-starter. He’s absorbed the last two decades of popular music firsthand, and it shows on “Girl.”
Best, within each track are four- and eight-bar breaks and rhythmic surprises, the kind perfectly designed to be mixed in DJ David Mancuso’s New York loft circa 1976. The bridge that arrives three minutes into the title track conjures hypnotic house music, slow but steady, and extends with celebratory glee.
For the most part, Pharrell’s uninterested in baggage on “Girl” unless it’s packed with lingerie or devotion. Through compact, perfectly infectious tracks, he’s out for some true love, some passion and/or someone to roll with — in whatever order the cosmos sees fit. Given that he’s the most charming and fashionable hit-maker working today, the fates don’t seem to have failed him.
He’s the era’s grand seducer. “I’m a hunter,” he declares at one point, flashing his teeth. “I think I want to be dirty, girl,” he confesses. He’s a sailboat hoping to catch your breeze on “Gust of Wind.” He’s a compassionate listener. He’s an advocate for justice on “I Know Who You Are.”
“Come Get It Bae” sounds like a boldface take on the girl-group classic “Iko Iko” and stars Cyrus in a thrilling collaboration. While Pharrell’s falsetto is immediately recognizable, it’s hardly as elastic as, say, Curtis Mayfield’s. Cyrus wins with a voice, delivery and sense of phrasing that’s expanding with each new recording.
Granted, the track runs on a tired engine-as-sex metaphor that has driven many pop songs before it including “Little Red Corvette,” “Speeding Motorcycle, “Shut Up and Drive” and hundreds of others.
That and other such lyrical flimsiness reveal that for all his charisma, Pharrell’s a far better musician than he is a wordsmith. “My heart is filled with love and care/Not an ounce of gas I would get up there” he sings in the clumsy opening of “Gust of Wind,” suggesting heart overflowing less with passion than flatulence. The robotic voices of Daft Punk sing a chorus about “a gust of wind,” further clouding things.
Elsewhere, in “Hunter,” he equates taxidermic heads on his wall with a sexual conquest, and reveals himself to be the kind of dude who excuses a tryst because the behavior is “in my blood.”
Still, this is pop music, and it’s all in good fun. The goal is to be “Happy,” as Pharrell drills into our head in his eminently hummable ode to joy. A sticky ditty in the “Walkin’ on Sunshine” and “Break My Stride” vein, it’s as sweet and bright as a flock of Peeps, a blissful serotonin expression that’s destined to saturate our ears in the coming years.
“Lost Queen” samples South African chorale music in a song about a cosmic temptress. Though few are the historians who’d join Pharrell in characterizing Joan of Arc and Cleopatra as “girls,” it’s one the album’s highlights nonetheless, a quick-tempoed jam in which he confesses that “Half of me is good, the other half nasty.”
The same could be said of “Girl.” That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I just wish the recipe would have included a touch more poetry.