By Carrie Battan. The ageless pop prophet talks about why he originally didn’t want to make his surprise new solo album G I R L, his take on the alleged sexism of “Blurred Lines“, the prospect of a new Clipse album, and what makes him unhappy. Pharrell Williams occupies the sideline of culture so compellingly that it often becomes its own unique stage. Since his 40th birthday last year—more than a decade removed from his heyday with Neptunes partner Chad Hugo—he’s effectively pushed the most ubiquitous pockets of popular music toward a groove-fueled, nearly-adult-contemporary space.
And though his evolving personal tastes have caused seismic changes to what we hear on the radio every day, he’s maintained an uncanny ease through the years (along with a science-stumping agelessness). Whether he’s vamping with Stevie Wonder and Daft Punk at the Grammys or slowly cruising down last year’s VMA red carpet on a BMX bike wearing cut-off jean shorts and a stoned-looking smile, Pharrell’s existence seems to boil down to two words: no sweat.
Given his malleability and impact as a behind-the-scenes star, it came as a bit of a surprise when he recently announced a plan to turn the spotlight directly on himself with a new solo project, his first since 2006’s lackluster In My Mind. G I R L—an appropriate complement to the debonair nostalgia of Justin Timberlake‘s The 20/20 Experience—sounds like a direct spawn of last year’s expensive disco-soul pop takeover, filled with grand orchestral flourishes, impossibly catchy funk licks, and his trademark falsetto.
It also includes his first-ever solo Hot 100-topping hit, the Despicable Me 2 track “Happy“, which he’ll perform for an audience of millions during this weekend’s Oscar Awards. The song is an apropos breakthrough that highlights Pharrell’s good nature, zen philosophizing, and ceaseless uplift, all of which carried through during our phone conversation earlier this week.
Pitchfork: You’ve such an impact as a collaborative force, particularly in the last year. Why a solo album now?
Pharrell Williams: If I was left to my own devices, I would not have elected to do it. But the people from Columbia Records were so nice and gracious—and this was before “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky” had come out, but they’d heard “Get Lucky”. They just said, “Look, we know that you said you wouldn’t do another solo album [ever again], but we know that you are going to change your mind, and we want to be the ones to change your mind.” They offered me a deal on the spot. I was so blown away and overwhelmed with shock and a wave of elation that I said yes. Is it flawless? No. But even the people who find flaws will feel my intention. I’m so proud of this work. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
Pitchfork: The record feels like a natural extension of “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines”. Did you want to capitalize on the popularity of that sound?
PW: I wanted to make something that felt good. “Happy” feels good. But the songs don’t sound alike. They just have the feel-good aspect in common; that’s the most important part. The album is for everybody, for human beings, from the vantage point of what I like. It’s about groove first. Its hands are open.
Pitchfork: Are you constantly in a good mood?
PW: I don’t think so, but I just like when stuff feels good. With a song like “Happy”, I tried nine times—nine different songs—and none of them worked for the scene [in Despicable Me 2]. I got really frustrated. On the tenth try, I asked myself, “How do I make a song that would work for a guy who’s generally mad and upset and in a bad mood, but he feels happy?”
Pharrell Williams – Happy (Official Music Video)
Pitchfork: You got married last year, but the album speaks about women in broader terms.
PW: My wife is a direct inspiration, for sure, but when I decided to do the album, I instantly knew what the album was going to be a full-spectrum ode to all the women who have been so good to me in my career. Most of my company i am OTHER is run by women.
Pitchfork: Was hiring mostly women a conscious choice?
PW: For sure. I prefer a woman’s way of dealing with things. There’s a certain sensitivity to what I want to express and how I want to express it, so that’s what I want around me. I’m not saying it’s doomed or impossible to work with men [in my business], but it’s not what I prefer.
Pitchfork: “Blurred Lines” took a fair amount of criticism; some people thought the lyrics were sexually predatory. Did you have that in mind at all when you were recording this album, particularly the wolfish song “Hunter”?
PW: What would be controversial about it? In “Blurred Lines”, the Robin Thicke lyrics are: “You don’t need no papers,” meaning, “You are not a possession.” “That man is not your maker,” meaning he is not God—nor can he produce children or women, for that matter. He’s a man, so he definitely did not make you. There are three kingdom: the mineral kingdom, the plant kingdom, and the animal kingdom. As far as I know, we are related to primates. What I was trying to say was: “That man is trying to domesticate you, but you don’t need no papers—let me liberate you.” But it was misconstrued. When you pull back and look at the entire song, the point is: She’s a good girl, and even good girls want to do things, and that’s where you have the blurred lines. She expresses it in dancing because she’s a good girl. People who are agitated just want to be mad, and I accept their opinion. I appreciate everything “Blurred Lines” became, and I appreciate the fact that it lifted Robin [Thicke] to a place where he deserves to be vocally. We got a kick out of making people dance, and that was the intention.
Pitchfork: Looking ahead, there have been mixed reports, but are you working on a new Clipse album?
PW: Not a Clipse album, but definitely a Pusha album. I mean, a Clipse album would be awesome, but what’s on the horizon in the near future is Pusha. He’s going somewhere else now. With Clipse, that’s up to Pusha and Malice. I’ll be there, waiting.
Pitchfork: You don’t rap on G I R L, but your verse on the new Future song “Move That Dope” is great. How did that track come about?
PW: [Producer] Mike Will played the beat when we were working with Usher. I was like, “Man, let me get a verse on that!” I told Pusha to hop on that too, and we started ripping and running. I was trying to get the hustlers who would be listening to a song like that to just pay attention. I wanted to illustrate that times are changing. I can’t really tell nobody what to do, but yo… like, there are drones. For over 20 years we’ve had satellites that can tell you what side a penny is on on a street from space. The line is: “All these drones/ While y’all smoke dro/ There’s an eye in the sky/ I’m trying to let y’all know/ Ain’t no standards/ I’ma set one, though.” I was saying: Man, the gun shit is not funny. It’s not a game. And I say: “If you got two hoes, you got to let one go.” You’ve got to focus and get eye-to-eye with one girl and take it a little bit more seriously. And then, “You got two Lambos, you need to let one go.” Y’all can’t be flossing like that. We ain’t going to judge each other, but we need to start setting a standard and setting some goals. The running and gunning was the 90s, man. While the verse sounds cool, my intention was all medicine.