In the past year or so, there have been several legitimate attempts at the lofty title of “Heir Apparent to the late, great Michael Jackson”. Back in December 2012, Bruno Mars unleashed his sophomore album Unorthodox Jukebox to massive acclaim and went on to fill arenas around the world with his electrifying stage show. Then almost a year ago now, Justin Timberlake dropped The 20/20 Experience Part 1 with classics like Suit and Tie and Mirrors and with a string of awards show and TV appearances, cemented his place back at the top of the music game. And this is all BEFORE 20/20 Part 2 came out in September!
Now if “king of pop” was an annual award, there’s no doubt Pharrell Williams would’ve taken home the trophy in 2013 after famously teaming up with Daft Punk for their long-awaited return to form or infamously joining Robin Thicke and T.I. in “that video”. However, 8 years on from his debut In My Mind, Pharrell stakes his claim for MJ’s throne with G I R L; a 10-track collection of retro-tinged pop through the legendary Columbia Records featuring some heavy hitting cameo appearances from some of the biggest marquee names on the planet.
Opening with Marilyn Monroe, it’s obvious Pharrell means business with lush string orchestrations from silver-screen legend Hans Zimmer, disco guitar and a velvety-smooth groove over which he layers that whispered falsetto of his. Despite a faster pace and a spoken interlude from Kelly Osbourne (a super odd choice), at times it seems like it’s following the recipe to Timberlake’s album opener Pusher Love Girl a little too closely. Justin can’t be too mad about though, as he appears on the very next track Brand New but sadly, Señorita: The Sequel this is not. It’s cool and everything with its vaguely African Wanna Be Startin’ Something feel and tasteful vocal to-and-fro between the two superstars but it doesn’t really go anywhere and kind of just sounds like the pair playing around in the studio for an afternoon to “see what happens”.
The same lack of direction is present on Hunter, which is in all fairness still a fun little venue for Skateboard-P to indulge us with his best INXS/Devo new-wave impersonation. N*E*R*D fans will find a little respite on the almost uncomfortably sexual Gush whereas Motown/’70s-sitcom-theme throwback single Happy (which we first heard back in November) shows us that Pharrell can definitely turn a decent hook and leaves you wondering why he doesn’t for much of the rest of the record.
Come Get It Bae featuring unapologetic headline generator Miley Cyrus is honestly a pretty lazy attempt to recapture the lightening in a bottle of Blurred Lines and yet again, doesn’t really go anywhere. Thankfully this leads into album highlight Gust of Wind where you can see guest stars Daft Punk’s cinematic training on Tron really come into play. It definitely skirts with the loose, neo-disco vibe of Random Access Memories but just try not emphatically pumping your fist when that vocoder chorus hits. Seriously, just try…
The nearly 8-minute Lost Queen is presented in two parts and not to labor the same point, but this technique is all over JT’s 20/20 Experience and it seems like Pharrell has just co-opted this tried-and-true approach. That being said, the first half sounds like if The Lion King was playing in the background at an after-hours cocktail bar and after some ocean samples, the second half washes ashore with its tiptoe-funk slinkiness and an appearance from singer/actress JoJo (NB. For those of you playing at home, NOT half of All My Life hit-makers K-Ci and JoJo).
The upmarket reggae aura on Know Who You Are is a great platform for a guest like Alicia Keys as it’s fairly relaxed and gives both a chance to shine and album closer It Girl ties together everything we’ve come to expect from Williams over the years: silky falsetto, Rhodes piano, percussion out the wazoo and a chilled out, welcoming vibe that pretty much anyone can enjoy.
It’s somewhat of a shame that Pharrell has downplayed his hard-hitting hip-hop heritage in an attempt to cross over to the mainstream – a bit like Cee-Lo Green did with 2010’s The Lady Killer – but like Green, Williams’ profile has gotten to the point where he didn’t really have much of a choice in the matter. G I R L sees Pharrell stylistically jumping here, there and everywhere and while it’s really impressive, it lacks a lot of the soul we know he’s more than capable of providing.