By Devin Friedman, Photographs by Pari Dukovic. 10:57 a.m. Uniqlo, West Hollywood
When Pharrell arrives, it’s as if in a bubble. Like Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Starbucks in one hand, two Asian-American women assistants trailing in his wake, a Chanel scarf waving from his back pocket. Uniqlo has closed this store, in the Beverly Center, for an event: About thirty homeless kids have been given a shopping spree. Pharrell Williams, who of course collaborates on a clothing line with Uniqlo, is the surprise guest.
He takes a picture with a girl in a her royal smurfness T-shirt and checks out jeans with a kid in a Lakers jersey. Truth be told, a lot of these kids don’t seem to know who he is. Most 7-year-olds don’t even know what a celebrity is. They don’t know that this is the man who, not long ago, was responsible for 43 percent of songs played on the radio in a single month; they probably don’t watch The Voice, where Pharrell is a celebrity “coach”; they don’t listen to “Blurred Lines” and know, hey, the genius behind that song wasn’t Robin Thicke, it was longtime super-producer and current pop star Pharrell Williams.
And they don’t know that his 2014 album, G I R L, is up for an album-of-the-year Grammy. Free skinny jeans in rainbow colors stacked to the rafters—that’s more intoxicating to a homeless kid than the reigning pop-music genius of our time. None of this bothers Pharrell. He is in his bubble, wandering the consumer video game that is Uniqlo. You could find a worse metaphor for Pharrell than Uniqlo. Post-racial, post-gender, kind of post-national. Its products are bright and happy and totally synthetic and futuristic and irresistible and are born of that high-low mix. I’m not saying we won’t discover more about him in the next thirteen hours.
But I will come to believe that everything there is to know about Pharrell can be gathered by watching him glide around looking silently at $15 tights. He is aloof, beneficent, curious, otherworldly. It’s like he’s only assumed a human form to make us less frightened. He’s regal. His clothes seem like a royal outfit of his own design—shredded jeans, a leopard-print shirt, a baseball jacket made of the thinnest diaphanous chiffon with printed flowers, which is part of his collection for Adidas. And the hat. Flat-brimmed and tall and stiffly perched on his head. Does he realize it’s kind of crown-like?
The accessories are exhausting to catalog. The necklaces, the rings, the stacks of sparkly bracelets, the earrings, all of them tasteful but, in accumulation, acquiring a vibe of decoration. He’s a decorated king. He’s a quiet little Egyptian space cat of a dude. 11:48 a.m. Heading north on Cahuenga Boulevard. When he rides in his Cadillac Escalade, Pharrell rides in the front seat. Next to him is Ben, his security man for the past fifteen years. “Yo, you remember that guy?” Pharrell is saying to Ben. “Tall nigga, go by — [I’m leaving his name out]?” “Nah,” Ben says. “—? I don’t remember any —.”
There’s no chauffeury tone to their conversation. They seem like two dudes who’ve known each other a long time. Ben drives north toward the Universal lot, where Pharrell will shoot the third-to-last episode of season seven of The Voice. Pharrell slips an earpiece into his ear and answers a call. “Good morning, young man…. I’m all right…. Talk to me.” I later make an educated guess that it’s his music manager. “I wasn’t happy about the T.I. situation,” Pharrell is saying, presumably talking about the T.I. record Paperwork, which he produced. “They did that record hoping for radio play, and they got nothing out of it…. Great, you got your No. 1 hip-hop song. But what does that do for your sales?”
When he’s talking to a journalist, Pharrell shoots rainbows and tarot cards from his eyes. This is something he said to me: “It’s all math. You have a certain number of bones in your body. You have seven holes in your face. There are nine planets, a sun, trillions and trillions of galaxies. Everything quantifies to numbers.” Or: “The more suspended experiences you have, the more you’re not bound by physical time.” I don’t doubt that this stuff means a ton to Pharrell, and a lot of what he says reflects deep thought and hard-won wisdom.
But if you want to understand the brilliant way his mind works vis-à-vis the recording industry, you shouldn’t interview him; you should sit in the back of an Escalade and transcribe a conversation he’s having while he’s not paying attention to you. “You want to be camouflage?” he says about the T.I. record. “Go ahead. Blend in. But we want to be that twinkle in the sky.” It’s a metaphor he likes, and it could serve as a philosophy: Being mass and being special are not mutually exclusive. “We want to be that twinkle in the sky. And you might not be able to see that star now. But it’s daytime. Wait till it gets dark.”
In time they move on to another artist. “With Kelly,” he says, speaking possibly about Kelly Clarkson, “I think we break her out by going to the sync department at Sony. Go put her music on Sons of Anarchy, go put her music on House of Cards. Her songs are so sync-friendly, it’s not even funny. This album is flawless. Let’s get it.” The last order of business is about what seems to be an artist in trouble, someone even whose gender I will withhold. “I don’t know that I can do anything, bro,” he says. “It doesn’t look good. I don’t know what I can do. It’s in another place. It’s not even me. There are some serious, serious issues. Music is therapy, but there are deeper issues. I’m really worried. Really worried, man.
“Well,” he says, turning back to look at me, “I have a writer in the car. That’s why I’m kind of talking around it.” 12:53 p.m. The talent compound at The Voice, Universal City. In about ten minutes, Pharrell will leave his trailer for the soundstage where he and Blake Shelton and Adam Levine and Christina Aguilera will pre-tape a “Coaches‘ Performance” for next season. Season eight. Officials at The Voice will go ripshit if I divulge the name of the song. Let’s just say you should get your mid-’90s leather pants ready to rock. But for these stolen moments in his trailer, Pharrell is making music. He’s got his headphones on, so all I hear is a violent mashing of plastic against plastic as he communes with his keyboard.
As he gets up and leaves his headphones behind, basically still smoking, he says to his assistant, Cactus, a woman with purple hair: “Send [Big] Sean an e-mail and tell him he’s got a missile coming.” But he likes it so much, he can’t help but call Sean himself: “It’s not what we talked about, man. But it’s haaaaard. It’s like ghost-of-Shaka-Zulu hard!” 1:15 p.m. Some soundstage next to the soundstage where The Voice is filmed In the minutes before their performance, the celebrity coaches of The Voice are sitting for an interview with E! News. The thing about The Voice is that it’s not simply a show.
It is, like many entertainment products, a lifestyle marketed to infiltrate your life at every moment. NBC does what it can to make sure it’s in OK! magazine and on drive-time radio shows and covered by NBC affiliates as news. And when you’re a “coach,” being part of this lifestyle is your job. Right now, the hostess from E! wants them to describe the season in three words. “Bituminous, outrageous, lavender” is what Adam Levine says, because his job is to drive the show by force of his self-aware need for everyone to like him. “Inspiring, peppermint, cloud. I feel like I’m high on cloud nine,” Gwen Stefani says, because how to respond to a bullshitty question but with a bullshitty answer?
“Firm yet soft,” Blake Shelton says, because ha-ha. Pharrell says, “Uplifting, holistic, a gift,” because his identity is The Artist, which he is. Still. I wonder if the tremendous reserves of time and fakeness all this stuff requires doesn’t completely drain him. I ask him: Why do The Voice? “The ability,” he says, “to reach so many people at the same time.” Being cool isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Talking to 10 million people at once. 3:32 p.m. The Voice soundstage, Universal City. The audience warmer-upper warms up the audience, and the four coaches sing five rousing renditions of [SONG NAME REDACTED FOR SPOILER REASONS] in a row. Then the live broadcast of December 9’s The Voice gets started.
8:37 p.m. Rooftop of the W hotel, Hollywood. Tonight, Pharrell will record a performance with Gwen Stefani of her song “Spark The Fire,” which he produced. It will be broadcast, as if it’s happening live, on Carson Daly’s New Year’s Eve special. Before he goes on, Team Pharrell retreats to a dressing room. His assistant, Cactus, is there, along with his art director, Phi, and Fatima, the beautiful choreographer. I ask Pharrell: Why do you surround yourself with women? Not to engage in racial/genre profiling or anything, but the world of hip-hop is dominated by artists surrounded by great clouds of pot smoke and testosterone.
“Women have a way of expressing themselves that I can relate to more honestly,” he says. “I am a sensitive person, so I want to be with sensitive people.” He looks meaningfully around the room. “They’re pretty magical, the women that are here. They sense things before it happens.” 12:30 a.m. Glenwood Place Studios, Burbank The night ends at a recording studio built into a little house. Lots of succulents and aloe plants, a little fountain, the sense that someone might offer you a fresh young coconut smoothie or a bong rip at any moment. The women of Pharrell are crashed on sofas in another room.
Pharrell himself is seated at a studio console, eating chicken soup and working on a song he’s writing for Snoop and Gwen Stefani. The song sounds pretty dope. I’m not going to try to describe it, but in honor of Pharrell’s synesthesia, I’ll say: It sounds bright green. Pharrell, besides being a pop star in his own right, is kind of a musical McKinsey consultant for other artists. You come to him when you need a hit, and he’ll guide you toward it, toward your “twinkling star.” “It begins like an interview,” he says. “And then the interview just turns into music. And sometimes it’s not even talking; it’s just the vibe. The vibe paints the room.”
Okay, I say, what vibe am I painting the room with? Without really looking up, he delivers a devastatingly precise evaluation of the contents of my soul: You wear plain clothes but have a very complicated interior; you don’t like to glamorize yourself; you’re intense and highly observant and hard on yourself and probably others. I feel instantly like he gets me. That’s what you sign up for with Pharrell, besides hit songs: He understands you; you feel okay being vulnerable with him. Don’t you ever get sick of producing content? I ask. It’s a fucking long day. Singing songs for warmed-up studio audiences over and over.
Writing songs. Planning to write songs. Don’t you think the world is increasingly insatiable and impatient? Don’t you ever get sick of being a slave to that? “I am only a slave to my curiosity,” he says. Pharrell is the musician for his time. Not just because everyone wants to record songs with him, but because the amount of content required to keep people’s attention, to feel relevant, is increasing mercilessly. The condition suits Pharrell. He can write fast; he wrote “Blurred Lines” in half an hour. And he never seems to want to stop.
He’s like some Greek-myth-type figure, suspended in an act of constant creation, his brain just plugged into the Matrix and a beautiful, terrifying, constant stream of content pouring out. He’s got the song going now. It’s not finished, but it’s alive, set in motion, waddling out there into the world on its own two feet, Pharrell following behind adding riffs and effects, clapping and singing Ooh, ooh, ooh and listening to it curiously, as if only now himself discovering its nature.