It’s hard not to feel happy for Pharrell Williams. The eternally boyish producer, 40, is currently enjoying a career renaissance on the level of Mariah Carey in 2005 or Bryan Cranston in 2008, emerging after a presumed definitive career arc to star in a dazzling second act. If he had disappeared at the end of 2006, after producing Clipse’s masterpiece “Hell Hath No Fury” as one half of The Neptunes and venturing out on his own with the spotty but influential solo debut “In My Mind,” a litany of turn-of-the-century hits for the likes of Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani still would have made him the most important producer of the last decade. In 2009, Billboard honored him -- as part of The Neptunes -- as such.
But then came 2013. Williams’ high-profile turns on Robin Thicke’s runaway conga line “Blurred Lines” and the triumphant Daft Punk summer anthem “Get Lucky” made him an in-demand artist -- not just a lauded producer -- for the first time in his career. Latest single “Happy” completed the hat trick, and is currently gunning for No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 -- even without the aid of Thicke or the "robots” of Daft Punk. So what are we to make of the inevitable comeback album, “G I R L” (March 3), which Columbia is positioning as the first event release of 2014?
“G I R L,” like Williams’ most recent hits, is a relentlessly positive and unselfconsciously joyful tour de force. Loosely framed as a celebration of women, but also a paean to “helpless romantics” of all stripes, the album is loaded with luscious orchestration, motivational mantras and playful sex metaphors. Its taught 10 tracks bring to mind the record Justin Timberlake could have made last year, if he had dared to leave anything on the cutting room floor. And eight years after “In My Mind,” Pharrell’s wannabe rapper alter ego, “Skateboard P,” is apparently no longer welcome to the party. That’s for the best.
Williams himself describes “G I R L” as “festive and urgent,” which is actually a perfectly succinct way to summarize the album’s overall tone. But let’s take a deeper dive, shall we?
1. Marilyn Monroe - Pharrell recruited legendary film composer and personal hero Hans Zimmer -- with whom he scored the 2012 Academy Awards as well as the upcoming “Amazing Spiderman” sequel -- to arrange strings for "G I R L," and his presence is felt immediately. The first sound on the album is an extended string reveille performed by a 30-piece orchestra, welcoming listeners in cinematic style. “Marilyn Monroe” then pivots into a “Thriller”-esque dance floor lubricant, complete with an exhortation of “let’s all dance and elevate each other.” The chorus namechecks famous women including Marilyn Monroe, Cleopatra and Joan of Arc, all of whom pale in comparison to the object of Pharrell’s desire. In the back half of the song, a series of drone blasts hilariously recall Zimmer’s score for “Inception.”
2. Brand New ft. Justin Timberlake - One of the album’s stronger single candidates, “Brand New” is a platform for Williams and Timberlake’s dueling falsettos. The duet is buoyed by a conga rhythm and machine-gun horn blasts, with Nile Rodgers-lite guitar strums thrown in for good measure. On the hook, Williams and Timberlake sing of the rejuvenating power of love. “You’ve got me feelin’ brand new / like the tag’s still on me.”
3. Hunter - “Hunter” hits the ground running with a call-and-response guitar riff plucked straight out of the ‘70s. The track, apparently written from the perspective of a woman, dramatizes the pursuit of a lover’s affections, heating things up with audible heavy breathing. “Hey baby, my love is callin’ / Hey baby, my sex is callin’.”
4. Gush - "G I R L"’s most explicit sex jam, “Gush” is also the most reminiscent of the vintage Neptunes sound. The title itself recalls the duo’s most famous Jay Z collaboration, 2000’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give it 2 Me)” (as in “Give me that sweet, that nasty, that gushy stuff”). On the track, Pharrell implores a paramour to “take off your halo and wings” so he can “light that ass on fire” and “leave those panties in flames.”
Originally released last summer on the “Despicable Me 2” soundtrack, “Happy” got a post-“Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky” boost late last year thanks to a viral music video and Academy Award nomination. Contagiously peppy and brilliantly simple, it seems likely to dominate radio for weeks to come.
6. Come Get it Bae ft. Miley Cyrus - This brilliantly titled duet includes the chorus “You wanna ride it, my motorcycle / You got a license, well you got a right to / wanna pop a wheelie, don’t try to hard to, cuz girl I like you.” That’s really all you need to know.
7. Gust of Wind ft. Daft Punk - This song, called “Gust of Wind,” features a rush of Zimmer strings that sounds like, well, a gust of wind. Daft Punk are credited as contributing vocals, but the creepy computerized hook sounds more like Pharrell himself climbed into one of the robot helmets.
8. Lost Queen - After the exercises in maximalism that precede it, “Lost Queen” thrums with a minimalist bounce. Vaguely tribal humming and promises of “hot sex and gold shiny things” serve as tribute to a woman who is deemed out of this world. “What planet are you from, girl?” Pharrel asks, before adding “I’m half good and half nasty.” Never forget: this is the guy who made "Rumpshaker."
Hidden Track: Freq ft. JoJo - After the dulcet sounds of whipping waves, a hidden song called “Freq” finds Pharrell trading oversized hats from lothario to spiritual advisor. “You’ve got to go inward to experience the outer space that was built for you,” he says on the song’s refrain. Elsewhere, JoJo turns up to help croon what could be the motto to the multifaceted artist’s production company/amorphous media outlet I AM OTHER: “I’d rather be a freak than not be unique, the individuality makes life better.”
9. I Know Who You Are ft. Alicia Keys - This song has a bit of a ska flavor, continuing 2014’s unlikely ska revival. During her turn as Pharrell’s counterpart, Alicia Keys is textured and soulful. As a lover and spirit guide, Pharrell isn’t just prodigiously skilled and enlightened; he’s also sensitive: “I know who you are and I know what you’re feeling” he sings.
10. It Girl - So what have we learned? I could tell you that this song is an ode to the creative (also: sexual) power of muses and contains the line “your waves wash all over me,” but if you didn’t already guess that then you haven’t been paying attention. Pharrell loves women -- especially when he gets to have sex with them. And if womankind has inspired him to make this album, then radio programming directors and prestigious awards voters should all be feminist.