Pharrell's first album has been dismissed by everyone, including Pharrell himself. But one track offers something that "G I R L" does not.
Although it didn't arrive upon a pillowy cloud of recent hits in the way that "G I R L" recently did, Pharrell Williams' debut album, "In My Mind," was not a commercial failure when it was released in July 2006. Pharrell's first solo outing, which followed years of Neptunes production triumphs and N.E.R.D. projects, debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart, has sold 406,000 copies to date according to Nielsen SoundScan and was nominated for a Best Rap Album award at the Grammys in 2007. Its lead single, "Can I Have It Like That" featuring Gwen Stefani, peaked at No. 49 on the Hot 100 chart. "In My Mind" did not possess a smash single on the level of Pharrell-supported tracks like Snoop Dogg's "Beautiful" or Jay Z's "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)," but the album certainly did not crater, sales-wise, upon arrival.
The critical response to "In My Mind" -- a flashy, weightless foray into hip-hop -- was much more severe, though. After years of assisting the biggest rappers and pop stars in the world with hooks and beats, many noted that Williams had struggled to fill out a full-length with ideas; what seemed so effortless for Pharrell as a guest star sounded so forced when he became a main attraction. Eight years removed from the project, the man himself admits that these critics were correct.
In a new interview with GQ about his second studio album, the 40-year-old more or less dismisses the content of his first studio album. "I wrote those songs out of ego," says Williams of the 15-song "In My Mind." "Talking about the money I was making and the by-products of living that lifestyle. What was good about that? What'd you get out of it? There was no purpose. I was so under the wrong impression at that time."
"G I R L," released earlier this week, months after "Blurred Lines" and "Get Lucky" revitalized the Pharrell brand and days after "Happy" became the first solo Hot 100 chart-topper of his career, is not a rap album. Pharrell sings in a light falsetto throughout the project, and sounds much more comfortable doing so. He sings about being happy, about his wife being his "lucky star," about feeling brand new, about "hot sex and gold, shiny things." It's a rhythmic, disco-influenced dance album, and a highly pleasurable listen that takes its cues from the airiness of "Happy," a giddy song that could rule the Hot 100 for many weeks.
By design, "G I R L" does not unlock any secrets of Pharrell, the person. It's a dessert, not a main course. And as ill-conceived as "In My Mind" was, one song, the non-single album track "Best Friend," explores the man who has created some of the past decade-and-a-half's strongest mainstream music. And because of that, one can't simply throw "In My Mind" away.
"My best friend say I'm bottled up, I need a fucking therapist," Pharrell spits in the first line of the first verse, delivering the words in the klutzy cadence that plagues much of "In My Mind." "But I can't think of nobody I wanna share this with." That curious opening leads into a series of striking images once Pharrell quickly convinces himself to open up, however: over a twitching production that presents itself as a sinister version of the Neptunes' "Signs" beat for Snoop, he raps about being "full of doubt and defeat" at 10 years old, learning basic math when his grandmother helped him with his homework, pounding his hands on couches and being told to channel that energy into playing drums.
"Look, ooh you see me, ma/They wish they could be me, ma/As I got better, her body was eaten by leukemia," goes Pharrell, shaving off any arrogance with a slicing last line about his grandmother Loucelle. As the first winds down, Pharrell equates meeting Chad Hugo, his Neptunes partner, with earning new life as he faces his grandmother's death. It's a moment where Pharrell explores his pain to gain strength -- he has to, argues the chorus, punctuated by shouts of "Let it out P! Let it out P!"
The rest of the song continues Pharrell's attempts at becoming a storyteller, next focusing on teenage drug-dealing and gang violence. "The place we love the most, the hood was built to smash us flat," Pharrell raps, adding a pointed exhalation for emphasis. The second verse is more generalized, and messier, than the opening, likely because he is a bystander in this scenario and can only speak to how he "escaped 'cause I chased what made me passionate." And the final verse tries to synthesize that struggle-to-success message with some imperative phrases -- "Hold yourself responsible," "Reassess your thinking," "First picture your goal, and repeat 'It'll be mine,'" "Don't wait for fame" -- serving as vague mantras. Even when "Best Friend" leaves autobiography and stumbles into the self-help section, one can sense and appreciate Pharrell's act of digging deep into himself to say something that can help his listeners. Years before he was declaring how happy he was, Pharrell was trying to teach others how to find happiness. The sentiment is definitely cloying, but it's not hollow.
"Best Friend" is not a great song in the way that "Happy," and roughly half of "G I R L's" track list, are great songs. "In My Mind" as a whole has not endured since its release, and Pharrell recently admitted to Pitchfork that he had zero plans to follow it up until last year, when Columbia Records offered him a record deal. And while the world is a better place for containing a fresh new wedding soundtrack and not "In My Mind 2," "Best Friend" presents a glimpse of an alternate reality, of what Pharrell the MC could have become if he had been less focused on the spoils of fame and more adept at showcasing the backstory of his brilliant career. How many people who have danced to "Blurred Lines" and sang along to "Get Lucky" understand how close Pharrell was with his grandmother, or the conditions he had to bolt away from in order to become a musician? Buried within an album that is now itself entombed, "Best Friend" offers something that "G I R L," interestingly, does not: a personal moment.