By Kathy Iandoli. Exclusive: Pharrell traces his current direction back to a 2011 Pop/Rock album and a search to restore music’s human element.
It’s an unfortunately stringent rule within Hip Hop that evolution isn’t open-ended. We’ve witnessed artists like Kanye West test that theory, volleying back and forth from 808s & Heartbreaks to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to Yeezus. Still, the greater Rap audience viewed it as bidding adieu to his already vaguely Rap beginnings. No one is feeling this more right now than Pharrell Williams. In 2013, Skateboard P hit the 40-year mark and celebrated it with taking a break from rapping. How was that perceived? Pharrell Williams will no longer be rapping. The statement was pushed through a filter and re-translated as Pharrell Williams has left Hip Hop. Has he though? With the ever-changing definition of the genre (not the culture), to exile one of Hip Hop music’s greatest producers, hook singers, and song creators would be like spitting at God in a pair of scuffed up Adidas shelltoes. No. Pharrell hasn’t ditched us, and he clears that up in his interview with HipHopDX.
Rather, he took a bit of a hiatus from the traditional art of rhyme to supply the music pipeline with what he considers to be more of a human element to his music. He titled his follow-up solo album G I R L as an ode to the women in his life who have inspired him and made him the man that he is today. Hip Hop hasn’t had a dedication to the fairer sex since LL Cool J’s “Around The Way Girl” and more “recently” Andre 3000’s “Behold a Lady.” Sure, G I R L sonically leans on the samples that Hip Hop is built upon more so than the finished product itself. That’s what P does though: he takes something music hasn’t fathomed and intensifies it. He holds a magnifying glass up to it and makes you really understand it. Your favorite Hip Hop artist is thanking women for his genius in a genre categorically riddled in misogyny, thereby rebelling against the music of rebellion. Leave it to Pharrell to pull that trick out of his gigantic hat. It’s pure genius, despite P rejecting that title. That’s how you know he legitimately is one.
HipHopDX: Have you been tuned in to the opinions surrounding the album since it started streaming?
Pharrell Williams: You know what? I haven’t. The team has been telling me stuff from time to time, but I haven’t. I’ve just been doing interviews, spreading the message that the record is out and how pleased I am to have the opportunity to do it. I’ve spent more time doing that.
DX: You mentioned upon turning 40 that you did away with the idea of rapping. Was that a product of age or being at a point in your life where it was time to do something completely different?
Pharrell Williams: Well, I think either I misspoke or I was misunderstood. I wasn’t saying I wasn’t gonna rap anymore. What I was saying was that what I was working on didn’t concern rapping, ‘cause I wanted a clear focus on expressing myself. Now what I can be clear about was that I was working on this project, and I didn’t want to confuse my messaging. I wanted to stick to my subject matter, which was my full spectrum version of appreciation for women—which is why I named the album G I R L. That’s capital letters with two spaces between each letter. I just wanted to focus in on that.
DX: In the past, you’ve mentioned having synesthesia. When you were making this album, and even as you hear it now, what do you see?
Pharrell Williams: For me, the music gives you the colors…the chords. I wanted to make sure, beyond people just hearing the music, that it was kinesthetically rewarding. So that was like the main purpose. All of the sentiment and inspiration just came from the ode to women, and the various colors in the music would come from my attempts to accompany those ideas with music
DX: It felt like your 2013 work with Robin Thicke and Daft Punk was building towards this sound. How much of this album was done side by side with these artists?
Pharrell Williams: No, that’s not true. I’ve actually been flirting with this sound since 2011. I made this song for Adam Lambert called “Trespassing” in 2011 and put it out in 2012. I also did “Inevitable” with the Scissor Sisters. There’s a bunch of records I did that predate that music, and I guess it just wasn’t the right time.
DX: So in 2011 when you got in that frame of mind, what inspired you to continue in that direction?
Pharrell Williams: Musically, I just felt like live music was taking a bashing at that time. Everything just felt so quantized and synthetic. It was just missing the element of a human touch. When you listen to music of the old, you hear the musicianship and the musicality. You would hear the humanity in it, and that made it interesting. I was like, “Man, I just want to sort of fuse some of those things together.” It was really ironic.
When I got to the studio in Paris, the robots [Daft Punk] asked me to play them what I was working on. That’s when I played them that Jennifer Hudson…and Mary J. Blige was on that record at the time by the way. I played them “Blurred Lines,” and I played them the Adam Lambert record, which had already been out. I just wanted them to hear it or whatever. So that was just a crazy time, because right after that session, I told them it was inspired by Nile Rodgers. They told me, “Yeah? Well, he’s on the track that we want you to write on.” And I was like, “What?” It was this really weird thing because they’re robots and I’m human. I’m American, and they’re French. They’re on that side of the Atlantic, and I’m on this side of the Atlantic. Yet, here we are thinking the same thing. We missed the humanity in popular music, and there we were trying to inject it.
There were plenty of people making live music and making great, live contributions. You just couldn’t hear it through the wall of the EDM stuff and the other genres of music that were poppin’ at the time. So we all just wanted to make something that felt good…something that didn’t just sound good. There was a lot of music at the time that was sounding good, but what feeling did you walk away with? A good film is defined by how you feel when you walk away. Music is the same thing.
DX: There’s a quote out there on the Internet—the good old, reliable Internet. It says, “Has Pharrell ever said that he’s a genius? No, because he doesn’t have to.” How comfortable are you with accepting that title?
Pharrell Williams: Ummm…I’m not comfortable. A genius denotes someone who knows a lot on their own—self contained. And I’m not. All of my work is a direct reaction to meeting all these very interesting people with whom I’ve collaborated. I’ve learned so much about their processes and who they were, and their vibes have inspired me. In that case, I just could not take authorship for my path. I know that I’ve elected to take some of the choices, turns and the direction that I’ve taken. But I know at the same time, there are these integral people in our lives from time to time who come in, give us direction and guide us. They tell us which way to go, and those are the people I feel like are just as much… They share the authorship for all of my successes.
So I’m not comfortable in that. I would say I’ve had a lot of really, really, really good help. And I’m just thankful that people have seen something in me, and I was smart enough to allow them to guide me in the right direction. That’s the closest to that term I could ever come to. I’m smart enough to listen to other people, but nowhere near genius.