Happy days are over for Pharrell Williams

Pharrell Williams performing with Hong Kong singer Karen Mok at a Singles' Day festival in Shanghai last month.
Pharrell Williams performing with Hong Kong singer Karen Mok at a Singles' Day festival in Shanghai last month.PHOTO: REUTERS

The American rapper vents his frustrations on his new album, No-One Ever Really Dies

LOS ANGELES • Don't worry, be Happy? No longer for Pharrell Williams, whose single Happy was a monster smash in 2014.

The 44-year-old is venting his frustrations on a new album with N.E.R.D, his long-running side project with musicians Chad Hugo and Shae Haley.

It all began at the start of last year when he dyed his hair green. "The minute I looked in the mirror, I was like, 'Oh, starting N.E.R.D now,'" he said. He had just left Nashville, Tennessee, where he had been producing and writing on Wanderlust, an album by the unflinchingly smooth country group Little Big Town.

And he was coming off the peak of his career as a recording artist.

Blurred Lines, his limber collaboration with Robin Thicke; and Get Lucky, his disco revival with Daft Punk, held No. 1 and No. 2 respectively on the Billboard Hot 100 for a time in 2013.

The next year, the pop-gospel hymn, Happy, became his first No. 1 as a lead artist. He wore an artfully goofy hat to the Grammys.

He joined The Voice as a coach.

The world changed though and, with it, Williams. The version of him that appears on the new N.E.R.D album, No-One Ever Really Dies, is anti-Happy.

He is exasperated by the police shootings of unarmed black Americans. The election of Mr Donald Trump as United States President stymies him.

On the 11 tracks on the new album, he is frantically waving for attention, as if hoping to stave off more trauma. "I spoke up because I saw this coming," he said recently.

All through last year, even as he stumped for Mrs Hillary Clinton, he was certain Mr Trump would win the election. "I knew it was coming, but it was still surreal," he noted. "I was thinking about what it meant."

As he recalled the moment, his mood turned to one of frustration. "People are desensitised," he said.

Technology, he complained, has blunted the emotional impact of troubling news.

"If the ubiquitous nature of the Internet affords you to see so much and have access to so much, how can you care?" he asked. "Okay, yeah, that guy just got murdered. But as soon as you just change the channel, you change it and it's gone."

Understanding that attention is more fragile than ever, Williams set out to figure out how to capture it.

Scepticism and outrage are all over No-One Ever Really Dies, which is, in part, a strident Trump-era protest album. It is sly and earnest, full of songs that move anxiously in several directions - punk, new wave, funk, soul, hip-hop - and full of agitated vocals.

For Williams, one of pop's most versatile figures - he was recently on the cover of Vogue and released a collaborative sneaker with Chanel - N.E.R.D serves as his "palate cleanser", he said. Haley noted: "When he feels like he's too glossy, he has to figure out how to muddy himself back up again."

N.E.R.D began in the early 2000s as Williams and schoolmate Hugo were redefining hip-hop opulence as the Neptunes, superstar producers for artists such as Jay-Z and Ludacris.

The group's 2001 debut album, In Search Of..., was a reaction to that time and remains the most indelible of the trio's releases. In its time, it was novel, a collision of styles that reframed rock and funk through a hip-hop lens. Not a giant commercial success, it nevertheless has extended its reach in everything from Kanye West to Tyler, The Creator.

Now, such musical melding is common, thanks largely to the blurring force of the Internet. And so N.E.R.D's disruptions have evolved too. The new songs drill away at song structure, dismantling the aesthetics that once provided comfort.

Williams had been listening to the nervy jangle of post-punk and avant-punk: Gang Of Four, Suicide, Devo and Talking Heads. "Once I identified all my pieces," he said, "I was like, 'Yo, I don't want to make any more linear songs.'"

But he was careful not to make a joyless album.

He said: "If I make a record about this administration and it sounds sad, how many times you going to listen to it? Now, if I take that same story and put it under music that feels happy, how many times you gonna listen to that?

"The first two-thirds of my career to date, I didn't care. I was just purely doing things for aesthetic and bragging rights."

But he has found it impossible to be complacent now. "There are atrocities happening in this country and people are still going to the movies that night. If I can make you blink once... " he said, trailing off.

"Let me put my hand on your shoulder. Just blink. Blink."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2017, with the headline 'Happy days are over for Pharrell Williams'. Print Edition | Subscribe