Here is the complete ‘Evening Standard’ March Issue with the Pharrell article thanks to SuperJDoug! Master Of The Universe. He has been involved in many of the biggest tunes of the past two decades, is a fashion icon and recently became the proud father of triplets. How does Pharrell Williams do it? He talks parenthood, cyber warfare and the power of the cosmos with Suprateek Chatterjee. Photos by Luke Stephenson.
Through the wall-sized window of an opulent suite on the 28th floor of the St. Regis hotel, Pharrell Williams looks deep into the grey-white patina of hazy air obscuring our view of the Mumbai skyline, ‘This is what – over 200? He asks, referring to the air quality index (anything over 200 is considered ‘inhealthy’). I nod, and he continues: ‘Yeah, and New Delhi is, what, over 400 [considered hazardous]? That’s crazy, man.’ Later, I google the AQIs of Mumbai and New Delhi. It turns out he was right on the money.
And so we can add ‘accurately ascertaining pollution levels in India’ to the list of things at which Williams would appear to be naturally gifted, alongside music (10 Grammys, innumerable mega hits as both a solo artist and a superproducer), fashion (his Billionaire Boys Club label; those hats) and fatherhood. In January of last year, he and his wife, the model and designer Helen Lasichanh, welcomed triplets into the world, 10 years after the excellently named Rocket Williams was born. ‘I’m in awe of women and my wife,’ he says rather sweetly when asked if fatherhood has changed him. ‘To carry another heartbeat inside your body for nine months – in my wife’s case she had four heartbeats – is beyond anything a man can give back to the universe. To give life. That’s something that has changed me, just the infinite amount of respect and gratitude I’m blessed with.’
Today, 44-year-old Williams is in India in his role as a brand ambassador and designer for Adidas. Specifically, he is here to launch and promote a new line that has been inspired by Holi: a national holiday of revelry when people celebrate by tossing around and smearing coloured powders of various hues – usually red, pink, green, blue and yellow – on each other’s faces and clothes. Wherever he goes in Mumbai, Williams is mobbed by over-exited admirers (soon after we speak, a picture of him looking hilariously bummed out while surrounded by deliriously happy Bollywood and TV personalities will go viral). This is not a surprise, because Pharrell has been a dominant voice in music for a long time. His work remains as omnipresent here as it is all over the world: from the string of productions for other artists with The Neptunes that dominated the Noughties, to his solo songs (‘Happy’, of course), to his other collaborations (not least his vocal on Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’), to his most recent work with his band N*E*R*D (with the other half of The Neptunes, Chad Hugo and rapper Shae Haley).
Arriving with minimal fanfare last December, their fifth album, No One Ever Really Dies, is a mélange of genres featuring heavyweight collaborations with pop and hip hop royalty: Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, Ed Sheeran, Andre 3000, Future, Gucci Mane and M.I.A. Seven years on from their previous album, it seemed to arrive out of nowhere. ‘We dropped it so fast and so… matter-of-fact,’ he says, ‘because we just did it for the fans. We knew we were going to hit the road soon so I didn’t want to just have a couple of songs out and touring and people didn’t know the rest of the record.’ A politically charged, high-energy ride that talks about racism and how it is sewn into the fabric of American life, No One Ever Really Dies taps in to a very different side of Williams than casual listeners would be familiar with.
Having had ‘a pretty regular’ childhood growing up in Virginia, his gift for music was spotted at a very early age (‘My parents a;ways supported what I wanted to do. The school was great. I owe so much to my teachers there’) and soon, as a very young man, he was off: making futuristic, filthy club bangers such as Nelly’s ‘Hot In Herre’, Britney Spears’ ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’ and Kelis’ ‘Milkshake’. Later, of course he would be responsible for Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, which is still remembered for its Emily Ratajkowski-featuring controversy-causing video. But that, says Williams, was a different version of himself in a different world. He couldn’t, he says, ‘be that person any more’.
When asked for his opinion on the #MeToo movement, he says he as ’always been a huge advocate for women and for women having a voice and I hope that as a result of this conversation there is a real shift in due process and industries across the board’. Did he feel a conscious need to change himself as he got older? It’s not out of pressure as much as it is out of responsibility that I feel to the universe,’ he says. ‘The universe has given me so much so, that’s like the universe deciding when I was young that, “Okay, I’m not gonna share this with you so you can go and do good things and experience great things…”
You know what I’m saying? It’s my job. You’ve got to pay it forward.’ He takes the slightest of pauses and continues. ‘You know, I’m going to be 45 in April, this is what I’m supposed to do. When you’re young, you think that everything is because of you; you think that all those great things are happening because of you. And when you get older you realise that there were so many people that the universe used and that conspired to get you to that place. And so, you have to return that favour. You have to stand in line and help, you know, recognize or help people acknowledge themselves and recognize that they’re stars and if they stand in the right place, they can be [art of the greater constellation. That’s my job.’
I’m gonna make it feel like something,’ he continues. ‘I can’t take responsibility for that.’ To further prove his theory, he points out that he did in fact consciously try to write a song called ‘Happy’ (on the N*E*R*D album Seeing Sounds), and that it ended up very different (‘It sounds like my version of Seattle grunge music’). ‘I mean, think about it,’ he says. ‘I’d have thought [then] that, “Oh, I can’t do a song called ‘Happy’, I already did that with N*E*R*D.” But I was just literally being used, just being open. I was as porous as I could be. And that’s wha came on.’
Later he asks me if I’ve heard about how scientists have received the radio signals from the first stars that were formed. And when I ask him about his attitude to social media – ‘I’ll go on a social media fast, as in a social media diet, like a spiritual diet. I do that from time to time’ – it leads him on to the topic of the singularity: the epochal time that will arrive when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. ‘We will get to a place of singlularity where, you know, we have technology to assist our bodies and help them function.
We will be able to download memories or different operating systems – that’s just where we’re headed.’ In the next 15 to 20 years, I ask? ‘Aww man, get ready,’ he continues. ‘It’s all coming. Anyone that thinks it’s not coming is just someone who’s holding on to the past. That was a very different life.’ He says with some certainty that ‘in the next three years, we will have more change than what happened in the last 10’, and that ‘humans are no longer analogue – it’s over’. Warming to his theme, he goes further, stating that ‘the next war that people will have to be worried about will not necessarily be nuclear, they’ll be, like, cyber’. ‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘Like, “Oh, we don’t like you so we’re gonna shut down all electricity from your main capital.” ‘Who will say that, I ask? ‘That’s… just what the future wars will look like.’ Okay, but humans will say this?
‘Yeah.’ It’s not a robots vs human scenario? ‘Well, yeah, the AI thing is a very real thing, too. Very real. When they’re doing more than just, I dunno, killing off characters in video games and beating us at chess… And the crazy thing is that the brain power we have not accessed is stronger than any computer could ever get to, but we actually only use 10 per cent and not everyone’s using 10 per cent. So, yeah, there’s a lot to fear. If we get to a place where we start to access beyond that 10 to 11 per cent, uh, y’know, operational use… At this point, someone from Adidas steps in and says it’s time to finish up, which might be a good thing. Pharrell Williams is clearly off somewhere exciting. And I mean that in more ways than one.