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Pharrell's enjoyable, goofy 'G I R L'

Columbia

By Adam Theisen, Daily Arts Writer
Published March 9, 2014

Coming just months removed from the Summer of Pharrell, what were you really expecting from this album? Did you think it was going to be ten different versions of “Get Lucky”? Would it be an hour of pure summer serving as a blast of warmth in the middle of February? Would it be the smash-hit album of the year? Well, despite helping to create some of the biggest singles of the past year, Pharrell presents his second solo album G I R L to remind us that he’s actually capable of recording songs that aren’t number one hits. That’s not to say that G I R L is a disappointment, but, simply put, Pharrell is not destined to be the superstar that his record company surely longs for him to be on the strength of this LP.

This is not a batch of freshly-cooked, radio-ready singles. In fact, aside from “Happy,” Pharrell’s most recent world-dominating song, the Justin Timberlake collaboration “Brand New” seems to be the only other promising hit. The problem is that “Get Lucky” tricked the world into thinking that Pharrell had it in him to be a great leading man, when really, he’s so much better when he works in a less prominent role. “Lucky” worked because all it needed from Pharrell’s vocals was functional catchiness. Songs like “Blurred Lines” and “Feds Watching,” though, succeeded because Pharrell set the stage with the production and feel of the song, but then got out of the way to let the main artist perform.

On G I R L, Pharrell is that main artist, so after setting the stage, he’s still left to fill in everything else. The results are vocals that seem improvised, tossed-off and goofy. His skill as a lyricist is practically non-existent (see “Hunter,” which features not only an incredibly strained metaphor but also a hilariously out-of-place “Duck Dynasty” reference), and when he tries to sing about girls, he comes off like a teenaged son of R. Kelly awkwardly trying to imitate his dad.

The inescapable “Happy” is the outlier here, but goddamn it’s an infectious one. “Happy” is the song most reminiscent of Pharrell’s hits, and it’s perfectly placed directly in the center of the album in order to give the lagging songs a boost. While its appearance on the “Despicable Me 2” soundtrack may cause some to categorize it as kids’ music, nothing on the album is more danceable or fun. The track is further proof that Pharrell can make some truly inspired awesome pop music, and its electric piano, clapping and effortlessly natural singing make it endlessly replayable and an early contender for catchiest song of the year.

Despite several A-List collaborators, the record is mostly about Pharrell. Alicia Keys has a mostly forgettable cameo, and Miley Cyrus is in-and-out on the record’s dirtiest sounding track, “Come Get it Bae.” Daft Punk also shows up on the chilled-out “Gust of Wind” to provide its familiar robot vocals. (Unfortunately, no Daft Punk/Pharrell track will ever live up to “Get Lucky,” and knowingly, the artists avoid trying to recapture lightning in a bottle.) The best appearance comes from Justin Timberlake, a man who knows pop music just as well as Pharrell, and the two duet over an enjoyable old-school soul beat.

The production of G I R L is always on point and confident. Harkening back to the soul music of decades past, Pharrell always plays to his strengths, and perfectly utilizes groovy drums and 70s guitars and keyboards on nearly every track.

Pharrell’s help is such an incredible asset for any artist trying to make the Top 40, but he shouldn’t carry all the weight by himself. His vocals wander through his production — sometimes he tries to sound like Marvin Gaye, and on “Lost Queen” he picks up a vaguely African accent, but he never sounds sure of what he’s doing. Opening track “Marilyn Monroe” is so overdone and changes what it wants to be so much that it’s almost unbelievable that it’s all one track. Pharrell’s sweet and innocent voice makes all of his boasts about women sound like parody, and he just doesn’t have enough charisma to carry most of the soul songs.

Is G I R L a failure? Well, it’s probably not what Pharrell’s record company was wishing for, as it lacks any real attempts for radio, aside from “Happy” and maybe “Brand New.” Listening to the weird meandering of most of the tracks, it’s hard to even imagine how the record company let this even happen.

However, taking it for what it is, G I R L can be an admittedly goofy, but enjoyable record. Despite Pharrell’s recent chart successes, it’s not the work of a future superstar, a Bruno Mars-like singer groomed for radio smashes. Rather, it’s the work of a man in control of every aspect of his album. All of Pharrell’s strengths (his throwback production and pop sensibilities) and weaknesses (his lyrics and vocals) are on full display throughout G I R L. Pharrell should mainly stick to production work and features, but as a novel peek inside the head of a pop music genius, it’s far more memorable and fun than anything a record company could’ve tried to manufacture.