Four years ago, a solo album from Pharrell Williams would have been greeted with breathless anticipation. Between his state-of-the-art R&B production work for the Neptunes and his altrock moonlighting project N.E.R.D., Williams epitomized a musical climate where all boundaries were dropping, where an African-American skateboarder with minimal singing and rapping skills who loved Steely Dan and Run-D.M.C. could make Justin Timberlake sound cool.
Few things change faster than R&B and hip-hop production trends, however, and with Kanye West in the process of redrawing the map — and with N.E.R.D.’s underrated sophomore album Fly or Die
failing to get off the ground with record buyers — Pharrell’s solo debut feels slightly like the Basic Instinct
sequel that came a decade after anyone stopped caring.
IN MY MIND - Pharrell (Star Trak/Interscope)
It doesn’t help that Pharrell leads with his weakest cards. The flimsy opener “Can I Have It Like That” relies on an autopilot beat and an utterly pointless Gwen Stefani cameo. Most of the first half of the disc finds Pharrell showcasing his emcee skills, a strategic blunder because he has little to say (beyond the fact that he’s very horny, and Jesus is his friend) and a slightly awkward way of saying it. Besides, Pharrell’s genius, if we can call it that, was never about doing straight hiphop; it was about creating genre hybrids driven by exciting, stutter-step beats.
Around the middle of the album, he tips the balance toward R&B and unleashes his thin, but pleasing, falsetto. “Angel” could pass for a firstrate Neptunes production, and Pharrell’s voice evokes memories of Curtis Mayfield. “Keep It Playa” (featuring Slim Thug) and “Young Girl” (featuring ubiquitous retiree Jay-Z) are similarly fresh tracks, although the latter’s obsession with underage girls ultimately wears thin. The disc finishes on a high note, but it also leaves you feeling vaguely dissatisfied, as if Pharrell decided that the first album in his own name couldn’t stray too far from his established style, and needed tons of famous guests to justify itself. In contemporary R&B and hip-hop, such a failure of nerve can be fatal.