Episode three of our Greatest of all Time series, in which we break down the musical influence and career of true living legends, is dedicated to iconic singer, rapper, producer extraordinaire Pharrell Williams. He is a 12 time Grammy Winner, a one time Academy Award winner and all round phenomenon of the industry. In this post we will look at his solo work as well as his work with The Neptunes, N*E*R*D and his endless production credits.
On April 5th 1973, Pharrell Lanscilo Williams was born in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He is the eldest of three sons and began his musical ventures in seventh grade where he met Chad Hugo, the man now known as one half of The Neptunes as well as being a member of N*E*R*D. Williams played drums and keyboards while Hugo played tenor saxophone, and the journey of Pharrell blossomed from there. The Neptunes were formed in 1992 and began a now 25 year+ career for one of the music industry’s most recognisable figures.
From their formation in 1992, signing to Teddy Riley and his label, The Neptunes spent some time refining their sound and striving to become prominent figures in the world of production. While this took time and had a very stop-start feel to it, there was plenty of success in the 90s for the group as they worked with the likes of Mase and Blackstreet as well as being introduced to Kelis in 1999 and thus producing her debut album Kaleidoscope to solid acclaim for their stripped-down electro-funk sounds in the beats. This came after their first major commercial break with N.O.R.E. the year before on her top 40 hit Superthug.
This interest then spiralled when The Neptunes produced the lead single from Jay-Z’s 2000 album The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, the track was titled I Just Wanna Love U (Give It To Me) and contained a Pharrell vocal feature in the chorus. Things were only getting bigger from then on as emerging and maturing star Britney Spears approached The Neptunes for her eponymous third album Britney in 2001, a project which contained smash hit I’m A Slave For U, a truly defining moment in the production duo’s careers. They now had a number one single under their production belts and didn’t have to wait long until their next chart-topper; working on Nelly’s 2002 smash Hot In Herre. This prompted publications such as Billboard to name The Neptunes as “Producers of the Year” at their annual awards ceremony.
2003 saw the run continue as they released their self-credited album The Neptunes Present… Clones, a Billboard chart topper which featured huge names including Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes and Snoop Dogg; artists who became regular collaborators with Pharrell throughout his career. Tracks like Frontin’ and Light Your Ass On Fire remain to this day some of the finest work of Williams’ career for their influential sounds.
One year later, The Neptunes worked on Justin Timberlake’s massive solo album Justified and even landed their first ever UK number one single with Nelly’s Flap Your Wings. This, along with the success of Clones earned the duo two Grammy awards in 2004, for Producer of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album with the aforementioned Timberlake. Speaking of which, The Neptunes made a surprise return last year in 2018 to produce large portiond of JT’s latest album Man of the Woods, unsurprisingly seeing a return to the top of the Billboard charts.
Never ones to hold back on their ambition, The Neptunes duo of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo joined forces with Shay Haley initially as a side project to their main work. Two years after formation they released their debut album as N*E*R*D, titled In Search Of… and it gained colossal acclaim. Juxtaposing rock and hip-hop in their production, In Search Of… was initially a European release but was re-released worldwide a year later; prompting the initial version to be dubbed “the electronic version”. They ditched more electronic sounds and swapped them with the now typically understood rock-rap sound that N*E*R*D are known for; giving hits like Lapdance and Rockstar more of a raw, refreshing sound. It has gone on to sell 603,000 copies in the United States and be certified Gold.
After the success of In Search Of… Williams and Hugo focused their craft on live instrumentation, even learning to play guitars, drums and more live for the recording of their second album Fly or Die. This album is best known for the lead single She Wants To Move, a rock-inspired banger with some scattered drum patterns and slick individual electric guitar chords. It is a track that became the group’s first UK Top 5 single and helped the album shift over 500,000 copies to grant it Gold status; making it back-to-back Gold projects for N*E*R*D. The album itself also featured notable guest appearances from Lenny Kravitz and Questlove as the group aimed for more jarring adolescent lyrical themes of bullying and rebellion.
The second album brought an end to N*E*R*D’s recording contract with Virgin Records, a contract that the band claimed made their music too squeaky clean. On their next project, 2008’s Seeing Sounds, Williams and Hugo entirely produced it themselves as well as paying for the recording sessions out their own pocket. It was as personal as it gets in the music industry but not in the conceptual way you would expect. The album’s primary theme was that of synestheasia, a neurological idea that is quoted to be described as “a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” It brought back a sense of unpredictability that Pharrell had strived for in his music and while it wasn’t as well received commercially as the previous two efforts, Seeing Sounds served as an important moment in the group’s progression; holding the reins all by themselves.
“We needed to align ourselves and make ourselves parallel and congruent with what society is feeling.” This was the mantra taken by Pharrell in the production and formation of the fourth N*E*R*D album Nothing. They used electronic systems such as Logic Pro and more modern tools for the album sound, shooting for a feeling of old-school psychedelic pop; something which can be clearly heard in the album’s hits Hypnotize U and the Nelly Furtado featured Hot-n-Fun. This album had a fresh flavour and that came down to the help of Daft Punk on production as well as the constant movement with the times of Williams and Hugo’s musical palettes. It was widely accepted that this would be the last N*E*R*D album and it felt like a nice summary. That was until….
Back with a bang and truly out of nowhere, N*E*R*D returned in late 2017 with the impossibly catchy anthem Lemon, a track that charted all over the world and boasts an ice cold Rihanna rapping feature. It was the best production work we heard from Pharrell in years and left us all wondering if an album could follow. It certainly did, on December 15th 2017, NO ONE EVER REALLY DIES was released to mass appeal and anticipation. It was a major, feature heavy hip-hop album with some of the most intriguingly wonderful production of the year; not to mention incredible verses from notoriously difficult to contact artists Andre 3000 and M.I.A. Lyrical content that was wrapped in political importance and racial difficulty, this feels like the best N*E*R*D album to date and a glorious, triumphant return for a cherished group.
Pharrell was a bonafide star in the early 00s so the time was always going to come where he would pursue a solo career. That much happened in the summer of 2006 with his highly anticipated and his well-sold debut solo album In My Mind. It featured big singles Can I Have It Like That? with Gwen Stefani and That Girl with Snoop Dogg and Charlie Wilson, selling 142,000 copies in it’s first week and earning a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album. Entirely self-produced and written, In My Mind was another welcome addition to Pharrell’s rock solid discography; once again reinventing commercial sounds and paving the way for those after him.
Pharrell Williams’ second studio solo effort came in 2014 in the form of GIRL. Yes it took eight years, in which time Pharrell produced about a million hits for people and even had time for two N*E*R*D albums, but wow was it worth the wait. It is the work of a seasoned veteran who sounded revitalised and in perhaps the funkiest form of his career. The unmistakeable Happy which featured on the Despicable Me soundtrack (more on that later) has become a classic amongst all generations, while tracks like Marilyn Monroe and Come Get It Bae are some of the slickest performances on all fronts of his illustrious career. GIRL went to number one in 12 countries, won Best Urban Contemporary Album at the Grammy’s and was a funkadelic powerhouse in every sense of the word. It celebrated femininity with such charm and attitude that it became the soundtrack of many people’s 2014.
I really don’t think there is enough time in the world to cover the sheer volume of work Pharrell has produced for other artists; so instead I have narrowed it down to what I think are his finest displays of beat making in his long tenure in the industry.
Beautiful – Snoop Dogg
This sleeper hit from 2003 has gone from strength to strength since it’s release, still sounding soo fresh to this day thanks to the bouncy production courtesy of The Neptunes. Pharrell’s presence offered somewhat of a career revitalisation for Snoop Dogg (as you’ll see from my next choice), which is perhaps the greatest compliment you could offer him given the legendary status of Snoop.
Drop It Like It’s Hot – Snoop Dogg
Snoop’s first ever number one single, he had The Neptunes to thank for that absolutely absurd beat on Drop It Like It’s Hot. The tongue clicks on the production are utterly infectious and give Snoop free roam to show off his personality on the track, with the results sounding incredible. In 2009, Billboard voted this song as Rap Song of the Decade and this was the crowning moment for the dream team combination of Snoop and Pharrell; one of the most successful pairings in popular rap music.
Surfin’ – Kid Cudi
So after dropping one of the most uncomfortable albums of the decade the year before, Kid Cudi returned in 2016 with Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’, with the lead single being produced by mastermind Pharrell. What was so brilliant about Surfin’ was that it felt like a really uplifting comeback moment for Cudi, using Pharrell’s expertise on this triumphant horn beat to flow about his recovery. It may not be the biggest hit of Pharrell’s catalogue, but it’s certainly one of the most rewarding and impressive.
Alright – Kendrick Lamar
Pharrell’s contribution on the most acclaimed album of a generation is a truly special one. His beat on politically charged Black Lives Matter anthem Alright should go down in history as a huge moment, mainly for the effect the song has had in the modern musical landscape. The production is so slick and fits the album narrative like a glove, using trap drums alongside classic jazz samples of horns and strings; with Pharrell also chopping up his own vocals as a part of the beat.
Pink + White – Frank Ocean
Serene sweetness and elegance in abundance, Pharrell’s production on Frank Ocean’s seminal 2016 hit Pink + White is some of Williams’ finest work ever thanks to those gorgeous piano keys and understated bass notes. It serves as probably one of the better songs on an absolutely staggering album in Blond and definitely one of the slickest beats; when these two join forces you best believe the results will be red hot.
Hollaback Girl – Gwen Stefani
Working with former No Doubt lead singer Gwen Stefani, Pharrell waved his magician’s wand to craft together a hip-hop beat for the ages on Hollaback Girl. The echoed claps are absolutely huge and give the song a feeling of importance and poignancy while remaining somewhat minimalist in it’s layering. It combines elements of 1980s hip-hop with modern day dance music and is undeniably a timeless pop banger.
So there you go; the legacy of Pharrell Williams displayed in one post. Who should we do next? Let us know!