2013 was the year of Pharrell. Sure, he’s been lacing the pop charts for more than a decade, composing beats and singing hooks for everyone from Snoop Dogg and Jay Z to Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. But last year, he finally capped his transition to center-stage stardom with Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” – two megasmashes driven to ubiquity by Pharrell’s lighthearted cockiness and free-range funkiness. Pop music can get pretty overbearing and self-serious in the era of Drake, Kanye and Lorde. Compared to them, Pharrell’s records are like the big, goofy-ass hat he wore to the Grammys and the Oscars.
Despite being ludicrously consistent in supporting roles, he’s never had much success as a leading man: N.E.R.D., the early-’00s rap-rock band he led with fellow Neptune Chad Hugo, and his no-fun 2006 solo album, In My Mind, are mostly best forgotten. That bad luck ends with Pharrell’s second solo disc. Girl is a simple, even slight record – and that’s definitely meant as a compliment. Everyone in pop owes him a favor, but the superstar cameos are few and easefully turned: There’s Timberlake harmonizing on the mirror-ball fantasia “Brand New,” and there are the robots of Daft Punk vocoding along to the spiraling astral-groove come-on “Gust of Wind.” The music is just as uncluttered as the track list, riding the light, euphoric vibe Pharrell established on the album’s Number One hit, “Happy.” The only requirement for getting into this club is admitting your own joy.
The 10 songs on Girl are steeped in sunshine, air and the most natural, universal strains of Seventies and Eighties R&B. The thick, juicy beats are full of hand claps and falsetto sex; the overall vibe is less $300 champagne behind the velvet rope than Miller High Life on the stoop in summertime. Where Jay Z big-ups his Basquiats and Kanye namedrops Le Corbusier, Pharrell plants his flag on the stanky soil of American pop culture at its most goobery: “Duck Dynasty is cool and all/But they got nothing on the female’s call,” he teases on the elegantly asinine “Hunter,” a daffy blast of disco slapstick.
When Pharrell first tickled our collective trunk 15 years ago with genius-establishing Neptunes cuts like Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass,” his go-to beat was dirty and Southern. Lately, he’s drawing from a broader, smoother palette: “Hunter” evokes New Wave sophisticates Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and the high-gloss strings and jazz-kissed keyboards on “Gush” could give 1979 Quincy Jones the vapors.
Girl plays like a concept album, the concept being that Pharrell likes girls a lot. But he’s never pushy or gross about it. On opener “Marilyn Monroe,” he includes OG strong woman Joan of Arc in his historical canon of hot chicks. And the album’s most charming song, “Lost Queen,” is a Lion King doo-wop valentine with trace elements of South African mbube, beautifully sung with a lovely, generous sentiment: “Though my planet’s full of warfare, you make it feel like a dream.” Times like these, it’s nice to see such a good dude winning.