Pharrell Williams decides what's cool before you do: lumpy Grammys hat, short pants at the Oscars, ubiquitous songs the producer helped make famous for other pop stars (Hot in Herre, Hollaback Girl, Get Lucky, Blurred Lines), ubiquitous songs the singer-writer made famous just for himself (Happy).
Your next Pharrell-approved blast of hip and hot? Much-anticipated new LP Girl, a lush, lusty 10-track groovin' good time that packs all the breeze of a May day at the beach. Deep, it's not. ("What planet are you from girl? And are there others like you there?") Cool? You know it.
The tastemaker's strength has always been style over serious, sound over lyric; how it plays, and stays, between our ears. The eternally youthful talent got his start as one half of Virginia Beach's Neptunes production team: rickety beats, Middle Eastern inflection, soul-kissed magic touch. Britney Spears (I'm a Slave 4 U), Justin Timberlake (Rock Your Body) and Kelis (Milkshake) all benefitted.
A true individual in a time of constant surveillance, the 40-year-old Pharrell had the artistic nerve to drop out of public life for a while, to come up with something new, to work with and boost other artists he enjoyed. Now, after helping the Daft Punk robots and Robin Thicke rule the radio, Pharrell gets his chance.
A bunch of famous buddies show up on Girl. He trades crystalline falsetto with Timberlake on the glittery nightlife strut Brand New, with its soiree of handclaps, '70s-style guitar riffs and brassy blasts from the Dap Kings. Miley Cyrus (surefire hit Come Get It Bae) and Daft Punk (Gust of Wind) drop catchy backing vocals into the rambunctious mix, modern updates from a guy who adores Stevie Wonder, Prince and circa-Off the Wall MJ.
For all the star-studded help (Alicia Keys is another duet partner; Kelly Osbourne records a spoken-word come-on), the album thrives thanks to the beautiful brain lurking under that ginormous Vivienne Westwood chapeau. Pharrell is a sonic visionary, a show-off; a stuttery beat from his Neptunes past will sneak in here and there, but he's more interested in exploring new realms of sound. Yes, current hit Happy is on the album, too, but that one's almost too easy for him. Check out the eight-minute Lost Queen, which blends tribal chants and a doo-wop vibe before an oceanic intermission — and then a new song entirely.
Opening cut Marilyn Monroe, perhaps the catchiest things he's done, is prefaced by a cinematic score arranged with Despicable Me composing pal Hans Zimmer. The following song is fiendishly layered with stalking strings, infectious vocals, tweaking guitars, big beats. Then, just when things are cooking, he drops everything for a low, droning keyboard tone. It's almost a taunt: Pharrell can rule the world with one finger, one note. I'm telling you, it's even cooler than the hat.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.