The Renaissance Man : Pharrell Williams
“Look, I don’t think that I’m strange, but I know I’m definitely strange,” Pharrell Williams says, crunching a Dorito and considering how others may view the method to his creative madness. “My process works for me, and it may seem a little . . . I don’t know. I mean, I do weirdo shit like watch Huckleberry Hound at two in the morning eating Corn Pops, you know what I’m saying?”
Williams sits on a sofa, legs folded Buddha-style, in the recording studio hidden on an upper floor of the Setai Hotel in Williams’ adopted hometown of Miami. This citadel of Asian minimalist chic might seem an unlikely home for an R&B and hip-hop hit factory, but as evidenced by Williams himself, Zen-like exteriors can mask pop ebullience.
Even after shaping the musical history of much of the past two decades—34 Top Forty hits, 17 in the top 10, 5 No. 1 singles, and a No. 1 album as a member of the recording-producing duo the Neptunes and the band N.E.R.D. and as a solo producer-performer—Williams finds his cultural currency at an all-time high. The 40-year-old Virginia Beach native is coming off a summer in which his creations have dominated airwaves, screens, and conversations, having worked his Midas touch on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” and a pair of tracks on Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail and contributed three songs and theme music to Despicable Me 2, which, like the first movie (which he co-scored), became a sleeper blockbuster. The rules of pop engagement dictate that Williams should take a victory lap, or at least go on a headlining tour. Instead he’s dispensing koanlike musings. “We’re not actual creators—we’re just vessels, pulling from inspiration,” he says. “Sometimes it comes from oblivion, sometimes it, like, walks by me. But again, it’s not within you. You’re just an observer, and your job is like a stenographer—you’re capturing things. I’m a recording artist, in all I do.”
And all he does is . . . you name it. While Williams considers music “the nucleus of everything,” the orbiting particles include fashion (designs for his own labels, Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream, among many others), fine art (sculpture shown at Art Basel, the Tate, and Versailles), accessories (jewelry and glasses for Louis Vuitton), media (his i am Other YouTube channel, a judging gig on the new competition show Styled to Rock), tech (UJAM, a cloud-based music-composing-for-the-masses site), textiles (Bionic Yarn, which makes high-end fabrics from recycled plastics), and furniture (a line of chairs shown at the Galerie Perrotin in Paris)—and he’s making plans to add perfumer, architect, and filmmaker to his résumé. If there’s a common thread to all these avocations, it’s that Williams, culture’s reigning polymath collaborator, rarely goes it alone.
“Every time I work with somebody, it’s like a crash course in, like, their university and their perspective,” he says. “You know, if you’re not learning, you’re wasting time.” The list of preeminent institutions of higher learning at which he’s studied includes those of Takashi Murakami, Marc Jacobs, Hans Zimmer, and a who’s-who of musicians—from Justin Timberlake and Kanye West to Gwen Stefani and Azaelia Banks to Lupe Fiasco and Frank Ocean . . . ad infinitum. His 2012 coffee-table book, Pharrell: Places and Spaces I’ve Been, a sort of senior thesis in eclectic cooperative studies, includes conversations with figures ranging from Buzz Aldrin to Anna Wintour. If Williams the student were to get a report card, the first thing it would say is “Plays well with others.”
Williams likes to call the be-helmeted duo Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, a.k.a. Daft Punk, “the robots” because of their superhuman dedication to precision. “Those guys are at a whole other level in terms of caring about every detail,” he says. He could, however, be talking about himself: During the making of 2008’s Hard Candy, Williams’ repeated criticism of Madonna drove the pop diva to tell him, “You can’t talk to me like that.” Tears gave way to a major blowup, which in turn led to a clear-the-air talk. Williams is unapologetic about his approach. “You’ll never discover anything by matching what’s going on,” he says. “The key is to find that which does not exist and try to make it undeniable.”
A self-described “kidult,” Williams credits his tastemaking to his restless, childlike curiosity. “I want to go to Machu Picchu, touch the pyramids, hang out in the think tanks at NASA, and harass all the people at Oreo cookies to make more different flavors,” he says. “I’m always open, because you just never know what’s on the other side of the door.”
That free-spirited methodology will be tested in some very high-profile ways this fall. Working with Miley Cyrus on her upcoming album, Bangerz, Williams wants to channel a single mood: “Freedom,” he says. “She’s just growing up, and she deserves her time and to do it her way.” He’s applying a variation on the same “her way” theme as he helps Beyoncé complete her much-delayed, much-anticipated new album. “I’m still very much a student when it comes to B,” he says, “because there’s so many things that she has in her head—so many ideas and so many incredible ambitions. More than anything else, I’m there to assist.”
At the same time, he’s intent on realizing the next wave of his own ambitions. He’s at work on creating a fragrance and pursuing a project with Zaha Hadid, the first woman ever awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize (“Zaha is 100 percent genius. We’re lucky to have her 2050 mentality in 2013”).
If this all seems like part of a masterful multi-hyphenate’s master plan, it is and it isn’t. “I create based on what I feel like is missing,” he says. “You jump in and follow your gut. It’s like a sculpture—you’re just adding on more clay, you’re chiseling away and adding on until you feel like it’s done, and you stand back and go, ‘Oh! It’s a person.'”
In that moment of creation, Williams’ Zen façade falls away. “Recording in the studio, he doesn’t ever try to play it cool,” Cyrus says between late-night sessions with Williams. “When we make magic, we could, like, explode with how excited we are, and I think that’s the energy everyone gets from Pharrell.”
So Williams plans to just keep mixing métiers and genres, betting his accumulated cultural capital that something serendipitous will emerge. Which makes Williams’ anthemic refrain—Up all night to get lucky—something of a mission statement. “You’ve got to go experiment. The Reese’s cup—that happened by mistake, know what I mean?”
The A-List Collaborators
Pharrell’s most famous co-creators on Pharrell.
“I want to be like him—I think everyone should want to be more like Pharrell. Someone who respects art and loves art in every form. He’s always got crazy artists coming into the studio, cool chicks from Japan that are just drawing this amazing artwork, and just—everything he does I’m just inspired by. It’s a great energy to be around. I wanted to get with him first, ’cause I wanted to be free. I don’t want to have any labels. Pharrell helped me on that soul search—he suited me up in my armor to be strong and to go against what everyone thinks you should do and be free. He prepared me for the battle you have to fight to be different. He was like, ‘I love you, you’re my sister. I’ll fight for you, I’ll do anything’—that was the moment where I just knew: Me and Pharrell, this is, like, a forever thing. We’re going to continue to make music together, as long as both of us are making music.”
Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter
“Pharrell’s an extraordinary, multitalented artist—songwriter, singer, rapper, producer. He’s a great collaborator, because he has a deep knowledge of all these different roles and what it takes to make a great song. As a singer, he’ll know how to interact with a producer, and likewise, as a producer, he’ll know how to interact and work with singers. He was always really the only choice in our mind for ‘Get Lucky.’ We’ve known him for a long time, and we’ve always considered him as this genuine, timeless entertainer, glamorous and elegant. It’s precisely this timeless elegance that we ultimately wanted to capture on the record. We were totally in sync—we were just on the same wavelength all along the ride.”
“I envy him, honestly. He is a true genius—he has a great personality matched with Picasso-like creativity. He had the idea of creating jewelry as an art piece, and he approached me about building a cabinet to display the jewelry. I became interested in the context he was aiming for—the idea of creating a symbol of society’s out-of-control desires—and so I added my own context by turning the cabinet into a monster. He liked that, and things took off from there. I think Pharrell is in a class of his own in bringing out the best in his collaborators. He has a wide range of tastes and is well versed in all of them, but he never flaunts this as he pulls from those he works with. A wonderful creator.”
“It’s the experimentation part that I love about him. I was supposed to help Pharrell on Despicable Me, and all I tried to do was stay out of the way of the onslaught of creativity that was coming from him. And then we started talking about technology, and we started a company called UJAM that’s developed interesting musical applications. We listen to each other. It’s a well-balanced relationship because, at the beginning of the conversation, we both know what we’re talking about, then we get to the middle of the conversation and we’re now on thin ice, talking about experimenting with something that neither of us knows about. We normally both have an endless supply of imagination. Organized chaos—we thrive on it. Because it’s Pharrell, you don’t just limit him to music. There’s the fashion thing, the art thing—there’s all these other things. All these polymorphic qualities make it really interesting. That’s why I love Pharrell, because, yes, we will touch on music, but then I’ve heard him talk on human rights, I’ve heard him talk on artists and their role in the world. Everything is informed by everything else, and that’s why his music’s good.”
“He does his own drums, his own chords, all the arrangements—and he’s a master songwriter. I can always say, ‘I like this better than that,’ but I try to give him space. Then once he has a couple of great lines, I jump in with a couple and give him time to think of his next couple—we go back and forth. The songs we’ve kept pretty much happen in about an hour and a half. The first two days, we did songs that were a bit more R&B-flavored, and then the third day we did ‘Blurred Lines.’ It seemed like something that never really existed before. We had Earl Sweatshirt with the Odd Future crew over in one studio, Miley Cyrus finishing up her Pharrell song in the other studio, and he and I were there, and by the end of the night, everyone was dancing and partying together to that song. I thought ‘Blurred Lines’ could be a hit, yes, but you never can expect this type of success. You think I’m going to do an album without that guy ever again?”