Thursday, April 3, 2014

Pharrell Williams: Girl

Charming Disco Redux

Pharrell Williams Performing "Happy" on the Oscars
     Pharrell Williams blew into the mainstream consciousness last month with his darling performance of “Happy” on the Oscars and his album Girl hitting number one the following week on the charts.  Though he was one of The Neptunes, a
group I like, and has been a major producer for over a decade, Girl places him in the position of becoming a household name.  He’s pivotal right now in the Dance/R&B genres because Usher has turned to being a TV star mentor on The Voice, Cee-Lo Green has already been there and is supposedly recording right now, and Outkast has promised a comeback that hasn’t happened.
Williams and Timberlake
     Williams produced Justin Timberlake’s first album Justified (2002) and he duets with him on “Brand New.”  In some ways, this is the album I wish Timberlake had released last year.  It’s both a throwback and an update in its Hip-hop take on Soul and Disco.  Timberlake followed the well-worn path to the Old School we’ve all seen before and I thought we have moved beyond, i.e. The Rat Pack retro that is Michael Bublé’s raison d’être.  Timberlake is in the first rank so it doesn’t make a lot of sense that he would cadge the playbook of a second tier performer.  Instead, Pharrell has subsumed the sexy-cool-raunchy vibe in a way that’s somehow family friendly.  

     Girl takes off from the cover that features Williams and three lovely young women in sunglasses and bathrobes at attention for a group spa massage, perhaps?  He has the most perfectly sculpted head of any contemporary male star so I wish he’d stop wearing that dopey-awkward Lord Baden Powell Boy Scout leader hat, which shows up on the back cover.   The first five tracks buzz along like some of the great Motown songs of the early ‘70s or Philly Soul of the mid-‘70s.  “Happy,” delightfully catchy, may be the main reason that new fans get hooked on Williams, but “Hunter” points back to the last days of disco with a bass line out of Diana Ross’s “Upside Down” and it’s terrific as is the opener, “Marilyn Monroe.”

     The ninth and tenth tracks seem superfluous because they don’t move the album anywhere new, but instead seem like the last songs at a great dance club before the lights come up.  I don’t know if Girl moves contemporary dance/hip-hop/soul anywhere new, but even if it remains in a holding pattern, it’s flying over a place where I really want to land.

I kinda like his hat!

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