Pulling happy out of a hat

Why Sunny Pharrell Williams has been one of the most transformative music figures of 2013.

Published: March 9, 2014 12:48 am

Why Sunny Pharrell Williams has been one of the most transformative music figures of 2013.

It can probably all be explained by the hat, the indelible success of Pharrell Williams.

The hat, of course, is the signature Vivienne Westwood mountain hat that he wore to the Grammys in January. Sitting atop his head as if it were pasted on with adhesive, the hat — part cowboy, part park ranger — added several inches to his height and several months to his cultural relevance. With one small stroke — almost an afterthought, given that he’d bought the hat several years before — Williams managed to redraw himself completely. That night, he was a performer, a winner several times over, including for producer of the year.

But that is Williams in a nutshell: taking an old idea, and, with a touch of panache, make it seem utterly new. He makes the familiar seem idiosyncratic.

Now 40, Williams has been producing and writing songs for more than two decades, first a force in hip-hop and R&B, and later in pop. He’s been one of the most transformative music figures of the last year, with his hands on two of 2013’s biggest singles, Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines and Daft Punk’s Get Lucky.

And now there’s G I R L, his second album as a solo performer. It’s intensely catchy and harmlessly empty, and succeeds largely because of Williams’s bravery at standing firm on territory no one else is trying to claim.

The sunny G I R L — which Williams wrote, produced and sung almost in its entirety —reaches back to the utopian black pop of the ’70s and early ’80s, full of soft funk and cushy soul. It’s an overwhelmingly positive album, cheery in mood and instrumentation, as if Williams knows something the rest of us do not.

Take Happy, which first appeared on the soundtrack of Despicable Me 2 and was nominated for best original song at the Oscars, where Williams also performed. The song is unrelentingly bright, like a peek of unfiltered sun between clouds on an overcast day.

Williams may be the most prominent pop music figure to have identified a shift away from cynicism in youth culture, or he may be the first person to make adult-contemporary pop that actually sounds contemporary.

Either way, he manages to tap into broad pleasures while coming off like a minimalist or an aesthete. There are moments of musical ostentation on G I R L, but they are few. Instead, Williams delivers a gut check of pared-down R&B and disco. Lost Queen is among the highlights — with nods to The Lion Sleeps Tonight. I Know Who You Are has Alicia Keys singing dully about empowerment. Brand New, with its wanton Jackson 5 homage, shows that Williams hasn’t been too troubled by the lawsuit filed by the heirs of Marvin Gaye, who alleged that Blurred Lines was too derivative of Gaye’s work.

None of the ideas on these songs is original, but they are for the most part out of fashion, and therefore Williams’s boldness and facility with them feels refreshing.

Williams has always been a believer in sketches. Most of the genre-shifting beats he made — Clipse’s Grindin’, Snoop Dogg’s Drop It Like It’s Hot, and so many more — were mere outlines. Williams is an expert at pointing a listener in a direction, then stepping out of the way, confident that the rest of the path is clear.

As a performer, Williams is a true chameleon. He has a neutral, almost ahistoric voice. He’s not a powerful singer — so many times on this album, his vocals are thickened, bolstered with harmonies.

Instead, where Williams excels is in pacing and rhythm, and finding pockets of delivery that feel intuitive, or at least lined so deeply with historical memory that they’re instantly familiar and comforting.

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