Pharrell keeps everyone Happy

Pharrell Williams performing at the Padang to a 50,000-strong crowd.
Pharrell Williams performing at the Padang to a 50,000-strong crowd. ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

In his first solo show here, Pharrell Williams' distinctive falsetto and tone were on form

It would not be a stretch to call American singer, producer and songwriter extraordinaire Pharrell Williams one of the pop geniuses of the last 15 years.

For the 50,000 fans who thronged the Padang stage to watch him play his first solo show here, the massive show was a reminder of how extensive his reach in the pop and hip-hop world was.

As the headlining music act for the first night of the 2015 Formula 1 Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix, his audience was clearly one of the biggest for a concert held here this year.

Happy, the insanely catchy Minions soundtrack from the 2013 animated hit, Despicable Me 2, might be the mainstream chart-topper that made him a household pop name as a solo act.

But as the set list on his 100-minute performance showed, his back catalogue of urban pop hits date back more than two decades.



    2015 Formula 1 Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix

    Padang Stage/Last Friday

Besides his own tunes from solo albums and singles releases, he also trotted out plenty of songs that he had guest stints on, produced or wrote either by himself or as part of hit-making production duo The Neptunes.

Then there was the edgier fare from his rock-oriented band N.E.R.D, complete with a surprise guest appearance from the band's rapper, Shay Haley.

Like their set at the Esplanade's Mosaic music festival in 2009, the pair tore through tracks such as Spaz and Rock Star that merged the bounce of hip-hop, the speed of drum and bass and the ferocity of hardcore and punk.

His output has mellowed over the years - the  N.E.R.D segment was a stark contrast to the mid-tempo, deep bass funk and jazz-influenced sound of his more recent work.

His newest single Freedom, propelled by jazzy pianos, was certainly spirited but it was still a little odd that he chose to play it twice, as the opening and closing songs.

And as he showed on his renditions of Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines and Daft Punk's Get Lucky, two of the biggest hits in recent times that he was also responsible for, he did not even need the presence of the songs' main artists to bring them to life.

Wiliams' body of work on hip-hop anthems from the early 2000s defined an era, and as a nod to the heady days of R&B and hip-hop club staples, he did a medley of tunes that included Jay Z's I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me), Snoop Dogg's Drop It Like It's Hot and Nelly's Hot In Herre.

In a sign of how forward-thinking he and his creative collaborators were back then, the beats and production on those bangers still sound as fresh today as they did 15 years ago.

Of course, having a warehouse of hits would not mean much if he could not carry a show live, and Williams, dressed simply in faded T-shirt, jeans and newsboy cap, truly delivered.

His voice did not have remarkable range, but his distinctive falsetto and tone were on form.

Much as he is the master of studio wizardry, it was also impressive that he brought along a four-piece band and two backing female singers, who played and sang most of the music live, with minimal samples and pre-recorded tracks.

The stage set-up was bare, save for animations on oversized LED screens, but he also had a quartet of agile and dexterous women dancers who sizzled up the set.

And in a seeming attempt to top his last gig with N.E.R.D here, where he pulled up a group of young adult female fans to dance on stage, he repeated the same stunt three times.

For the N.E.R.D songs, it was a group of boisterous men; for the sensuous club hits, it was dancing women and, for Happy, a bunch of bouncy preschoolers.

And that is a true sign of a pop auteur - the ability to spread his appeal, both edgy and family friendly, to seemingly disparate audiences with ease.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2015, with the headline 'Pharrell keeps everyone Happy'. Print Edition | Subscribe