Monday, March 3, 2014

album review: 'g i r l' by pharrell

It's always a little worrying when producers step out from behind the sound board and try to make hits of their own.

And I know that sounds terrible, but it circles back to the fact that it's extremely rare that a genuinely gifted producer will be a smash performer, and vice-versa, because while there is some overlap in their skill sets, it's incredibly rare to find someone who can handle both effectively. In modern years, the one that immediately leaps to my mind is Timbaland, who worked with Justin Timberlake and even had a few hits of his own throughout the mid-2000s, songs that might not have been amazing but Timbaland's unique baritone and some decent charisma gave the songs some staying power. But even with that, I'd have a hard time calling his material as a frontman amazing because there was something of a calculated element to his presentation. It was a little stiff, a little awkward, something you never saw in his beats, and that lack of comfort does show in front of a microphone. Then again, when compared to, the other beat-making producer who stepped out from behind the mic and and showed nothing but disinterest for the idea of recording lyrics that made sense and sounded anything close good, Timbaland holds up pretty well.

Now to his credit, the artist we're going to be talking about today has never really seemed to have this problem. Pharrell Williams may have started his career in the same era as Timbaland as a member of The Neptunes with Chad Hugo, making slick R&B and hip-hop jams, but his career got a major boost thanks to 'Get Lucky' and 'Blurred Lines' doing so well last year. That, plus his many production credits, some solid live performances, and that ubiquitous hat have led him to drop his second solo album. And from the early buzz, it became apparent that Pharrell wants to be a star all on his own this time, as his newest record was reported to be a feminist borderline-concept album celebrating the place of women in society. Let me repeat that: an album with strong feminist themes, written in the wake of the controversy over 'Blurred Lines', controversy that I will go on record saying was overblown even though that song did contain seriously questionable elements, written by a man.

...well, you might as well hot-link Jezebel and your local MRA forum, because I'm bound to offend somebody in this review, so before I inevitably shoot myself in the foot, how's the album?

Ehh... it's alright, I guess. I can't help but find myself disappointed, because I really wanted to like this more than I do. Not only that, you can also tell this album is a labour of love from an artist who was trying really hard to make a statement with good intentions, but where the execution completely falls apart.

Now not all of the execution, because Pharrell is still a great producer and instrumental songwriter, and he brought a lot of his a-game, drawing back to the golden age of funk and soul and invigorating his instrumentation with a lot of touches that lend them a lot of character. The blissfully smooth string sections, the textured percussion, the distinctly African and reggae vibe that starts to materialize on the second half of the album, the focus on some pretty damn catchy melody lines that are perfect for dancing. It's slick and polished, but the mix is so carefully balanced and crafted that it sounds organic and frequently beautiful. And there is so much of a funky edge on the bass and guitars on this record that it wins points for me right out of the gate there. If I'm going to have a complaint about the production, it would come in some of the backing vocals, as a few times they don't quite feel as cohesive with the rest of the track. And while I find most of the hooks on this record pretty good, the flow can be jerky at points and that gets distracting.

But if you know your music from that era, you can spot Pharrell's influences fairly quickly - a lot of Chic, some Michael Jackson, but a lot of Prince. Now I can see why Prince would be an attractive influence for Pharrell, who'd love to co-opt Prince's labels of extraordinary talent across the board plus the whole sex god thing he had going. And you can tell, with every moment on this record stretches into indulgence (which really seems to be a problem coming from Pharrell's camp of collaborators, like Jay-Z, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, etc.) and especially from the lyrics that he'd like to take Prince's throne. But remember that preamble where I said that Pharrell considered himself a sex-positive feminist and those themes would be underscoring this album?

Unfortunately, it rapidly becomes apparent Pharrell is in way over his head with this balancing act when it comes to the lyrics, most of which really don't work. Part of the problem is that he's not a great lyricist - his lyrics are underwritten, don't have a great flow, and sometimes are explicitly sexual seemingly for its own sake. And there are definitely points where the lyrics are just too corny and silly to take seriously, and it really kills the vibe. Take his collaboration with Miley Cyrus, who is on autopilot on the track 'Come Get It Bae', and there are lyrics that try to equate sex with riding a motorcycle - uh, Pharrell, you're trying, but you aren't Springstreen or David Coverdale, arguably some of the few men who could make that lyric work! Or take 'Marilyn Monroe', a pretty solid song that instead focuses on Pharrell trying to get a 'different' girl who he's more into, and then there's the line 'I promise not to abuse you'. I can't believe I'm going to repeat something I said about Chris Brown, but you shouldn't mention 'not abusing' someone in a love song because that should be taken as a given! And then there's 'Hunter', which might be the stupidest song I've heard thus far this year, which seems to take a page from Justin Timberlake's playbook from The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 and goes for the hunting/animal motif... and then Pharrell makes it way too explicit by referencing taxidermy and Duck Dynasty being cool and equating sex with kung-fu? It would be more than a little creepy if it wasn't so idiotic?

But here's the infuriating thing: Pharrell plainly intends none of this to come across as denigrating to women or over any line whatsoever. Okay, 'Gush' might be pushing it as it goes into pretty lurid details, but it's the Prince comparison, he's trying to be romantic and very sexually explicit - it's along the lines of what Beyonce tried to do with her recent album. And like with Beyonce, there are stabs at feminist themes that come close to hitting a mark. 'Lost Queen' and 'Freq' aren't bad steps in this direction, and if you ignore some of the sillier sex jokes Pharrell makes and that Geico reference, you can kind of see it as romantic. 'Gust Of Wind' was close to being my favourite track on this record for its killer groove and decent lyrics about letting go of a free-spirited girl... and then it says in reference to Pharrell's love, 'If you never discover, forever you'll suffer'. Uh, I sincerely hope Pharrell was directing that line at himself, because that comes across as distracting and really creepy. The closest he comes is in 'Know You Who Are' with inspirational-song generator Alicia Keys and even there he has lyrics like 'I know who you are, and I know how you're feeling' - that's awfully presumptuous, isn't it?

But you know, I could have forgiven some of this: Prince has had plenty of bad lines in his catalog, and if Pharrell was trying to emulate that style and try to make it come across as feminist... well, he failed lyrically, but at least his execution and passion could redeem it, right? Well here's the other big problem: Pharrell is not exactly a compelling performer on his own. He's not a bad singer, his falsetto is great, and he's clearly giving a lot of enthusiasm and passion to his performance. But maybe it's just me, but it feels like Pharrell fell into the trap a lot of disco and 80s R&B performers experienced: a lot of their material feels a little soulless and lacking in genuine feeling. Pharrell's brand of charisma feels a lot in the line of the showman's of the past, or to make a modern comparison, Bruno Mars. There's a lot of emulation of the style and charm and swagger and he'll probably do well in Vegas some day, but it doesn't quite feel genuine. And sure, that works for a song like 'Happy', which is just effervescent fun fluff I could see Owl City writing, but if you're making Prince-style sex jams, you have to really mean it and Pharrell never managed to convince me in the way Prince or Marvin Gaye or even R. Kelly could.

Look, it's very telling that on Pharrell's collaboration with Justin Timberlake 'Brand New', one of the better songs on the album, they include in the bridge lyrics about their intentions being misunderstood, how they show off their sex drives and kinks and a lot of people think they're being pigs or perverts (I remember the uproar against 'Sexyback', Justin has had this happen to him). In reality, I have no trouble believing these two happily married men mean no harm towards women - but it's very telling on this album that whenever Pharrell tries to approach a feminist theme, he does so through the framing of his personal appetites - and the frustrating thing is I don't think Pharrell is remotely aware of that. And yet, even despite my many issues with this album... the grooves and vibes on this album are so much fun and are so well-produced that they're really hard to dislike. So with that... I'm giving this album a 6/10 and if you want to shut your brain entirely and just groove and dance with the music, Pharrell's G I R L get a recommendation. Otherwise, not so much.

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