By Zach Baron, Photograph by Paola Kudacki. For GQ’s April cover, the G I R L artist and producer talks to Zach Baron about politics (he’s calling 2016 for Hillary), the Tea Party, the hat-collection clamoring, and losing the Best Song Oscar. Miami, early March: The sun is bright overhead—no winter here—and Pharrell Williams is driving his Rolls-Royce Phantom through South Beach, a pharaoh at the wheel of a spaceship.
Today’s buffalo hat is midnight blue. G I R L, his second solo record, is number two in the country, behind Rick Ross’s Mastermind, a situation Pharrell can live with, even be proud of. “I’m cool,” he says. “It’s, like, number one in seventy countries.” Anyway, he says, Rick Ross is a friend. He lives here in Miami too. He makes a right turn, and with no prompt starts discoursing about a gym he’s invested in, over in Coral Gables. It is, or will be, a place for women—a sanctuary where “they can find their inner beauty and find their inner challenging spirit and find their bravery, all by dancing, and then at the same time getting fit.”
It is breathtaking to hear Pharrell talk when he’s in visionary mode. He’s describing the dance classes at this gym, setting a scene for me: “You’re going to stand around, and you’re going to see loads and loads of women doing, you know, trap dances and squatting low…” His wife Helen, sitting in the backseat with me, gently points out to Pharrell that he is driving on the left side of a two-way street. It is breathtaking to watch Pharrell drive, too, in an are we going to live?? kind of way. He swerves back onto the right side of the road, then takes an abrupt left in front of an oncoming taxi. People honk ecstatically when they see him at the wheel. They’re not even mad.
Back in January, while wearing a similarly improbable and now-notorious hat, he won four Grammys, including one for Producer of the Year; next he went to the Oscars, to perform “Happy,” the number-one song in the country then and now, and just lost out on an Academy Award to Frozen’s “Let It Go”—more on that in a second. After twenty years of making hits for other people, of being “the guy next to the guy,” he’s finally become the guy himself.
The hits come with his name on them now. He is ubiquitous—there he is, gamely parrying Amy Adams’s haunting snake-dance in GIF form, or on the radio, engaged in a breathless Michael Jackson-off with Justin Timberlake. He may well be the most beloved man in the country at the moment. He and I have been talking at various points all winter, in Los Angeles and now here in Miami, where the producer-turned-artist has still more to say: about losing that Oscar, Hillary Clinton’s chances at the presidency, FOX’s Cosmos—”I wanted to be a part of it so bad, but I didn’t know Seth MacFarlane,” he says, ruefully—and beyond. Below are excerpts from those conversations.
GQ: Originally G I R L was going to come out in May. Why did you end up moving up the release to March 3?
Because Columbia just was like, “You’re almost done with it; you’re doing the Oscars. There’s almost a billion people watching: Why not give it to them then?” I was like, “Alright, cool.”
You were nominated for an Oscar that night, but didn’t win. How badly did you want it?
Well, trust me: when they read the results, my face was…frozen. But then I thought about it, and I just decided just to…let it go.
“Let It Go”—you just said it. How do you feel about the song?
I thought “Happy” would’ve been a more interesting choice.
Is it going to be here for ten years—that song from Frozen?
Seems like that happens a lot with that particular Oscar category.
Well, I asked you what your opinion was, and you’re entitled to it, and I hope you print it. Did you like my answer?
I thought your answer was great.
My face was frozen, but I just decided to—
Oh, I got it.
—I just decided to let it go.
This is your second solo record, after 2006’s In My Mind—did this one feel different?
Way different. In My Mind was just purpose-oriented toward, like, competing and being like my peers—the Jays and the Puffs of the world, who make great music. But their purposes and their intentions are just completely different than what I have discovered in myself that I wanted to achieve in this one. So it makes it easier to sing about, because I don’t gotta sing about myself. Jay’s good at that. He’s great at it. I began to sound so self-serving and so self-satisfied, whereas he can do it and make you feel inspirational about who he is and what his intention is.
In retrospect, were you unhappy back then?
Of course. Because I felt like I had amassed this big body of work, most—not all—but most of which was just about self-aggrandizement, and I wasn’t proud of it. So I couldn’t be proud of the money that I had; I couldn’t be proud of all the stuff that I had. I was thankful, but what did it mean? What did I do? And at this point, where I came from, I’m just throwing it in that kid’s face, instead of saying, “Look at all the fish I have, and look how much we’re going to eat.” It should’ve been—at least a part of it—teaching them how to fish. That’s why you gotta give it to Jay, because he’s been talking to—you know, he’s been telling everybody: “If I did it, you could do it, too.” So I did a little bit of that, but I was so occupied with, like, the competitive spirit—and not in the right way.
How do you let go of that competitiveness?
Because I think it’s so much more interesting to go inward, to experience the outer space that was built for you.
Can we hear more about the outer space that was built for you?
The aether. The ultimate connection between time and space is time and space. Without time, there is no measurement of space. Without space, there is no measurement of time. We need them both to coexist. And the theory of everything is that everything exists at the same time, is connected. So we’re connected. Are we connected physically now? No. But are we physically connected in this moment? Yes. When you look back in this memory, the part of this fabric: yes! So there’s a lot of allusion that just goes over people’s heads, so they lose the importance of certain aspects.
I’m curious why that’s something you could know now but not, say, in 2004, or when your first record came out, in 2006.
No, because in 2004, I was still used to making money, going, “Whoa.” I mean, it’s understandable—2004, you know, I was 31 years old. I didn’t know no better. I’m about to be 41, so I understand the value of life. The value of life is the value of life, not “life” the word itself. It’s the definition. It’s where all the life is. Life is about definitions, not about the words. Words are just incantations.
So basically you’re talking about fifteen years of not knowing any better—practically your entire career.
When you say that it makes me reconsider your whole catalog before G I R L. It makes me wonder if all that music is itself unhappy.
Yeah, but I didn’t know what happiness was. My definition of happiness was based on what my peers quantified as happiness: boats—you know, material stuff. But then I realized I had a platform; I would meet kids, and meet girls and women who would always point out the inspirational stuff. They would always talk about those songs. I’ll never forget: There was this girl that told me her brother had died, and he was a huge N*E*R*D fan, and he got in a car crash. When they looked in the car, the song that was playing was “Run To The Sun.” That scarred me—in a healing way. Because “Run To The Sun” was huge for me with my grandmother. You know, you hear the intention in that.
But that’s what people would come up and talk about, those inspirational things more than anything else. Sure, sometimes it’d be like, “Yo, man, that beat on ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’!” or “That ‘Grindin” beat!” or “I Just Wanna Love U!”—whatever. But mostly, people would emote about those records that had substance and purpose and intention: I could feel that. Like you just said: After you’ve heard this body of work, you go back and listen to the other one: It feels naked and cold and empty. So I didn’t know. I didn’t know what happiness was.
What do you feel like then, when you hear, say, “Grindin'” now, or when you hear “I Just Wanna Love U”? All those tremendous old songs that had a different or less inspirational kind of message.
Just a phase.
Neither good nor bad.
Yeah, no. Neither good nor bad.
How do you learn—
I told you: Right at the end of ’07, that’s when it clicked. Like, I never even imagined a world outside of the Virgina area. I never even imagined what that must be like, or was I even interested or curious, and here I am: I’ve superseded my own expectations or my wildest dreams and imagination, and why am I not happy? Because I was down as fuck. And it was the music—that album not doing what I felt like it should’ve done woke me up.
Do you regret the trucker hat?
No. Uh-uh. I always did the same thing. I’ve dressed like I make my music. “No one’s doing that: I’m gonna go do that.” With the trucker hat, it was just a different time. And it was just N*E*R*D time for me, you know? And that’s what we represented—like, the anti-media image. We represented the real: black kids that skated.
The last time I saw you was the week before the Grammys, and you were wearing the original buffalo hat, and it didn’t seem so outrageous. Then you wear it on the Grammy red carpet, and it becomes this enormous thing. Was that surprising to you?
Totally. It’s not my doing. A, I didn’t create the hat. B, I didn’t produce the Grammys show, and C, I’m not the one purchasing the hat. None of it’s my doing.
Well, except for the part where you were the guy who wore it down the red carpet.
Small portion in comparison to the big mosaic.
The Arby’s jokes or the park ranger jokes or whatever—are they funny to you?
They said the same things to me fifteen years ago about trucker hats. Remember: trucker hats at a moment in time when people were wearing throwback jerseys. I was aware of it.
So not that funny?
I mean, it just goes with the territory. Anything different, people are going to look at and go, “Ha ha ha ha, what is that??” Then, after a while, they do a little bit of research; they realize it’s Vivienne Westwood, an ode to her boyfriend at the time; they had a store together called World’s End. The guy who went on to sign the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren.
Does that make you want to retire the hat?
No, I’m having too much fun.
Have people come to you and been like, “We need to do a hat collection now”?
And what do you say?
No! Why do that? I don’t want to be like, you know, whored out. I want to jump into different things. I’m interested in that because I can do something uplifting.
I opened the New York Times last weekend and there was a $16,500 bike in there that you designed.
$16,500, because it was wrapped in leather, yeah.
Who is that for?
Someone who can afford it—not for the world. But I have affordable products. You have to connect with people.
But that bike isn’t connecting with people.
No. It’ll connect with one person.
Kanye West has spent so much time in the last two years talking about how frustrating it was to go into the corporate world, only to find all those doors were closed to him. What’s been your experience with that?
I’ve been lucky enough to be received with open arms. And I think Kanye has too, to a certain extent, and he’ll tell you that. I think he was just voicing his opinions of, like, the cons of his experiences. And he’s since then tried and been making a very serious effort to show people his appreciation. So it’s different.
But he’s been like, “They want me to work for them. They don’t want to work with me. They won’t give me the keys.”
Yeah, right. That might be true, to a certain degree. But, at the same time, I think that he’s worked really hard to sort of speak of the pros of his experience as well.
Your whole career has taken place in the framework of corporations, basically. You’ve collaborated with everybody.
Right, yeah. Doesn’t mean that I don’t want everybody else to be able to pursue whatever they want to do, too, and make themselves happy. Listen, money is a necessary part of our society, so you gotta be on the right side of the dollar. If you’re on the right side of the dollar, you’re able to get it. If you’re on the wrong side of the dollar, you just want to pinch it.
Have you ever been in these meetings and felt like, “You guys are slamming a door shut in my face”?
No. I’ve had a ball.
There were people who criticized you for not including more black women on the cover of G I R L. How did you feel about that?
Do you want me to be honest with you?
It’s insecurity. If you love who you are—and I’m not saying that there’s not a plight out there for people who have different skin colors, because Mexicans go through just as much discrimination, if not more discrimination, than black people do in this country. Right? That’s why I wrote “Marilyn Monroe,” man: That which makes you different is what makes you special. You don’t gotta be waif, white, and thin to be beautiful. You can be anything that you want to be, and what I chose to do is put my friends on the cover. The girl that was closest next to me is black, but they didn’t know that, so they jumped the gun. And it wasn’t all black women. There were a lot of black women that were really angry at some of those girls, but some of those girls are the ones that instantly get mad when they don’t see somebody that’s dark. And it’s like: “Yo, you don’t need nobody to represent you. You represent you. You represent the best version of who you could be. You go out there and change the world.” Because I’m black, and I wouldn’t trade my skin color for nothing. But I don’t need to keep wearing a badge that tells you that I’m black every time I do something! I’m black! In fact, the media will tell you I’m the first black person that’s had a number-one record in America in a year since Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in 2012—the first black person! The media tells you that. So why do I need to roll around with a scarlet letter on my forehead that says “Black”? My mother’s black, who’s a big part of my business; a black woman runs my business; and I’m married to a black woman. What more do you want? And why are we talking about this? And if we’re going to talk about degrees of black—what is it in this country? I still believe that if you are at least 1/32nd of black blood in your body, even if you look like you, you are deemed black. Right?
So why are we still having this conversation? Because look: Lenny Kravitz is biracial, but to me and everybody else I know, he’s known as one of the biggest black rock stars of all time. Our president: He’s biracial! Mom was white, daddy was black, and he is black. So what do you want me to do, go picket in front of the White House that he’s not black enough? So to me, that’s a divisive conversation that just comes at the wrong time, because the first black guy to have a number-one record in over seventy countries—number two in this country, to Rick Ross: I’m happy! That’s my man. No one deserves it more than him. But at the end of the day, the rest of the world: It was mine. I’m a black man. I’m happy to be black, and anybody that is not happy to be black will point around and ask for that kind of sympathy. But the thing is, let’s not ask nobody for no more sympathy. Let’s get together ourselves and support ourselves.
It doesn’t make sense to me. That kind of divisiveness is not necessary at a time when we’re supposed to be unifying. That’s what happiness is all about, and if you look at my “Happy” video, I had everybody in there: fat, skinny, gay, straight, purple, polka-dot, plaid, gingham print, houndstooth, alien. I fuckin’ had dogs in there! I had children in there! I had kids in there! I’m the most indiscriminate person that there is! I believe in equality.
So which is it? Is President Obama black or not? Since you’re so mad: Is he black or not? Come on, man! We ain’t got time for that. We are black people. This is the new black. Oprah Winfrey: That’s the new black. She’s a black billionaire. President Obama: He is a black American president. Regardless of what you think about him, this is his second term. That’s the new black. LeBron James: the first black man ever shot on a Vogue cover, a black man. Me: a guy that’s written a song at 40! Nominated for an Oscar, four Grammy awards—at 40! That’s the new black! And by the way: a song that has transcended my lyrics, my own intention, and has become a movement and helped cancer patients. That’s the new black! Black ain’t a color: Black is a spirit, and it is ubiquitous. In fact, there’s more black out in space than there is stars. We have nothing to be insecure about.
Do you feel like you’re operating in a different world in that respect than you were ten or twenty years ago?
Yeah! I know more about the world now.
But we didn’t have a black president ten years ago.
No. And by the way: We’re about to have a female president. Hillary’s gonna win.
You think so?
Let me tell you why Hillary’s going to win. Everywhere you go in this country, you have red and blue. You got the Democrats; you got the Republicans. You got the Bloods; you got the Crips. Everything is red and blue in this country. You know what else is red and blue? Blood. Blood is blue in your body until air hits it, and then it turns red. That means there’s unity. There’s gonna be unity. So when you think about a night where there’s late-night talk-show hosts and it’s mostly women, that’s a different world. Right? A world where seventy-five percent of the prime ministers and the presidents were women: That’s a different world. That’s gonna happen, and it’s gonna happen when Hillary wins. Because you know what? No matter how staunch of a supporter you are of no-abortion, whatever you are: You’re a woman, and there’s no way in the world you’re going to vote for somebody that’s going to try to tell you what to do with your body. When we are a country and we are a species that has had a martian Rover traveling up and down the crevices of this planet looking for water and ice, okay, and we’ve had a space station that’s been orbiting our planet for sixteen years—but we still got legislation trying to tell women what to do with their bodies? Hillary’s gonna win. Listen, I’m reaching out to her right now. She’s gonna win.
Are you reaching out to be like, “What can I do?”
I can’t say but so much, but Hillary’s gonna win. Trust me. And it’s a two-for-one: Bill is the coolest dude in the game, still plays saxophone, and every woman in the world wants him. It’s a two-for-one. Hillary’s gonna win. Everybody laughed at me when I said Obama was going to win, but I knew what he represented. But I know what Hillary represents: She represents a woman in power, and she did great as the Secretary of State. She’s gonna win.
If it’s the other guys—
Who? The Tea Party guys? The guys with the nigger jokes in 2014? They’re all trying to learn how to do the Dougie. Please. While their daughters are all twerking. Trust me: Miley tells me all the time. Not saying that about Billy Ray, but I’m saying Miley tells me all the time: All those little girls, all those girls with their Republican daddies, they’re twerkin’ somewhere listening to Jay Z and Beyoncé and doin’ the “Happy” dance. And that’s black.
You became friends with Miley a few years ago, after she asked you to work on her last record. But this was before “Get Lucky” or “Blurred Lines”—her people were like, “Don’t work with Pharrell. Pharrell’s not the guy anymore.”
Do you feel like that was a feeling that extended past her camp? Did you feel counted out in 2010, 2011?
No, because I would still get the Jay Z calls. I would still get the Usher calls. I would still get, like, the calls from the Kraken and the Titans. But it’s all good. I didn’t take it personal. They didn’t understand me. Like, those are people who are uninformed: They’re not knowing like, “Okay, cool. You’re telling her that, but I’m also over here designing sunglasses for Moncler.” You don’t understand who I am as a person. I’m not a renaissance man. What I am is a maverick, and I don’t want to be put in a box at all.
Has music always been your only job?
It was my only job, but I wasn’t successful.
So you always had enough to work full-time at it.
Yeah, but still: I didn’t know what my path was. Because there was no manual in Virginia. I mean, in Virginia, like, not every day people wake up and are involved in the music industry.
What were those early years like for you? Where were you living?
Living at home.
With your mom, dad?
Yeah, when I first got a big piece of money, I bought my mom and them a house, but I moved in with them. I always like the idea that Michael Jackson lived with his parents for so long. I knew I would never be anything like him, so it was always cool to just sort of emulate the king.
When did you move out of your parents’ house?
Uh, when I finally got tired of sneaking girls in. And it was more than one girl, you know, coming to hang out with me. So it was kind of like—you know, I didn’t want to do that to my mom.
She didn’t like it?
Yeah. She—well, she probably didn’t know what was going on. I guess I’m being delusional, like a delusional child.
But so you were still in Virginia.
Yeah, hard. And then 2000 came around, and I saw Miami, and there was just so many girls. I did not understand. It just didn’t even compute. I was like, “Wow.” So I started working there a lot.
But now you’re married.
Does that affect anything?
one hundred percent.
Is G I R L her record?
This album is my ode to the female species. She’s definitely a part of it.
Did marriage change your perspective on life?
Did you learn something from it that you didn’t already know?
No, that’s just—that’s my bestie. And that feeling that you get—there’s a lot that you could talk about there, but I just wanted to make a record where girls were the inspiration, but the criteria was: It should feel festive, celebratory, and all the records should feel urgent.
I hear a man at peace with himself. I think that’s why I’m asking: Is it age? Is it marriage? Is it fatherhood?
Yeah, but I’m at peace because I discovered what my true happiness is, and it’s not all these nice things that we get—you know, the byproduct of like, living this life. It ain’t that. It’s time. It’s awareness, and it’s experiences. That’s happiness.