Pharrell Attempts At Some 'G I R L' Talk
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Men have acknowledged women in music since the day that someone decided that serenading a balcony-bound fair maiden was a smooth operator move. Ever since then wax poetics about women have gone on a scale from swoonworthy to steely side-eye.With such mug slinging that goes towards women on a daily basis, from being underpaid at work, to the marginalization into one dry definition of "beauty", oh, and those rape jokes that circulate in comment sections, women have to continue to scoop up the picket signs from our ancestors in order to not be counted out of the human race. So it catches me off guard that Pharrell Williams would release an album and entitle it G I R L and go so far to claim that it revolves on themes about his love for the fairer sex. Wait...what? In 2014? Sure you jest, Skateboard P? You see, Pharrell is different. He is not Maxwell, John Legend, or even Marvin Gaye whose careers/legacies have been built on the essence of wooing women. Pharrell, on the other hand, is a hip-hop soul boy hybrid who doesn't get all schmaltzy. He's been a nasty boy (uh, N*E*R*D*'s "Lapdance" anyone?) and has (unfortunately) collaborated with male artists that have had less than favorable notions to say about women. Then again it's always has been Masterpiece Mystery! worthy what goes on in men's heads (*cough*), but Pharell seems to feel a little worn-out over the division between the sexes and wants to bridge the gap as he scribes out some kind of love letter towards 21st century feminism on G I R L. All that's left is me deciding on whether to come down from the balcony or not.
For as long as I can remember I've said that if I was ever a musician I'd have Pharrell produce all the things. Something about his style appeals to me. This sort of eager high school garage band style that is mixed with funky old school eclecticism. Add to that, his ability to genre hopscotch and work with a melange of artists is appreciative and has made him become one of the few chameleons we have in the music industry. All of that came to head in 2013 when he garnered monster success with collaborative efforts from Daft Punk and Robin Thicke which were only two parts of the overtime put in by Pharrell for the calendar year. In short, Pharrell looked at 2013 and charted his conquering of it, and won. Hot on the heels of his Grammy wins and Oscar nomination, Pharrell is boiling over into the new year, with the first solo album he's done since 2006's In My Mind, and one that brings to light the adolescent adult guise that Pharrell has been straddling.
With G I R L Pharrell dons himself in a sharp suit, laces up the Chuck Taylors and plays the joyful host, keeping the martini's dry and crams the album with rhythms and grooves that are fun and play up his boyish charm. Invited guest ranging in variance from Justin Timberlake to film composer Hans Zimmer, aid in giving G I R L a universal appeal, but the cost of it is Pharrell feels like a kid trapped in an adult body a la Tom Hanks in Big. There isn't anything wrong with that, not everyone needs to be the killjoy, especially in the sarcasm and pretentious hipster sauce that is the noughties. Last year's soul clapping "Happy" (which appears again here) and its epic star-studded 24-hour music video is the manifesto of Pharrell's position as the cool, fun-loving, older cousin who may be apart of a fortune 500 company and solves complex mathematical equations in his sleep, but keeps a basketball hoop on the back of his office door. As much as it's a part of Pharrell's endearing personality, for G I R L it hinders, once again, his assertions that the album is a celebratory ode to the "deeper" context of women.
For hip-hop and R&B giants it seems to be such an effort for them to treat women (and especially women of color) with some respect in their music, but Pharrell seems to want to utilize his cushy position as a cultural tastemaker to be the dissenter to this peers by being uplifting towards the fairer sex. Still how does this explain Pharrell's collaboration on Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" which poured out like the date-rape drug in the margarita all last year? How does this explain Pharrell's choice to issue G I R L with such a marginalized album cover where darker skinned women aren't in existence? I don't know. He doesn't know (and believes we're the crazy politically correct ones). Maybe he's right, and we're all just being overly critical here? Which is why I don't know if Pharrell is trying a gimmick here with G I R L, or that with recent social events or even with "Blurred Lines" backlash he has sincerely become aware of his peers actions towards women to where he felt the need to cease fire and be an ally.
As much as a side-eye can be thrown for the album cover, its explanation for it, and for "Blurred Lines", he's got about five songs on G I R L that are about being enraptured with not just the body, but the mind and spirit of women, thus I have to draw a conclusion that Pharrell actually wants turn in his He-Man Woman Hater's Club card and be an apologist nice guy. As much as the "nice guy" trope can have its own hypocrisy ("I bought you dinner and a necklace, was attentive to your opinions, and we hung out watching 'Adventure Time', so can you f**k me now?") Pharrell seems to have his heart is in the right place in order to devote so much to women in this long player right down to the title. So do I take the extended roses?
Well, to some extent, I guess so.
Celebratory and not predatory is what Pharrell is aiming for with G I R L. He's not dishing about birth control battles or why The Bachelor is oh so problematic, the tough topics about women he's not bringing up here. He's all about the bedroom frolics, the morning after, and the wide-eyed future of possibilities in a relationship. He does get some frat boy moronic some eye-rolling lyrics in ("make the p***y gush", "light that ass on fire", all of the what is the tart basslicker "Hunter"), yet unlike "Blurred Lines", Pharrell doesn't overstep his machismo when it comes to the album as a whole. He does tip-toe around it, even when Miley Cyrus rolls up her tongue and brushes a little Southern spit on the gut bucket smut of "Come Get It Bae", but it overall doesn't drudge up threats or sounds like an aural date-rape drug. Same goes for his homage to female muses on "It Girl" as it dips into kaleidoscopic haze of Prince-laced psychedelia. A more sincere attempt is the shaky yet punchy symphonic opener, "Marilyn Monroe" to where he names off the likes of Joan of Arc and Cleopatra, but says he's not here for all those brazen dames --- he wants a a "different" kind of girl --- which I'm assuming is "normal", "boring", "less threatening", but whatever.
Pharrell works best when he goes for the old-meets-new approach and cuts out all the "deep" thought processes and just gets down to making stylish groovers with heart, and he crams the brief album with a fair share of them. When he joins up with Justin Timberlake on the lovey-dovey "Brand New" the two are infectious no matter the Lean Cuisine Michael Jackson course they gnaw on. It's funky effervescence that creates a stylish retro vibe that gets the shoulders shimming and stands out as one of the great ones here. Prepare for it to be lodged in your brain and be a hit single.
The true love letter to femmes, "Lost Queen", attempts at Afro-Beat, but it feels a little clunky and right when it begins to gather itself together --- it ends. It is redeemed with the JoJo lead "Freq", which shouldn't have been negated to the lowly position of "hidden track" with it's lusty grooves...and yeah, that one too ends after we get acquainted with it. Alicia Keys and Pharrell match up well on "Know Who You Are", and though they appear bored to tears with the song, the Reggae-meets-yacht rock bounce keeps them on their toes.
Silly lyrics aside, "Gush" is a '70s groover in a half that dabbles in an appreciative mix of bounce, skate, and rock. Next to "Brand New" the other true winner is his collaboration with Daft Punk on "Gust Of Wind" and it's layering of dreamy orchestral elements with old school funk and DP's digital electronica make it the most inventive slice here.
More eventful G I R L could have been, especially with it being released on the backbone of what was a banner year. Too many loose ends it has where some songs have great ideas going for them ("Lost Queen", "It Girl") but just seem to go nowhere and prove that Pharrell should've spent less time trying to make a statement and more time really fleshing out tracks and focusing on letting things flow naturally. And it should be mentioned that some songs on G I R L are rumored to be test drives for Timberlake's 20/20 Experience, which explains some things.....
While it's not dismantling patriarchy any time soon (nice try), Pharrell's G I R L does work as a whole, and will work, due to its charm and Pharrell's sincerity to make an album that sounds old fashioned, but bubbles with new funk elements that are easy for all ages to digest and that will class up and reassemble some of the shambles R&B has been in as of recent, and for that it's something to pop on and forget about the gruel of life. So yes, Pharrell, I'll come down from that balcony for you, but let's get to know each other first before we get too serious, mmkay?