Confidence hovers over Pharrell Williams the same way you and I look at our phones on a daily basis. His new adidas collaboration that has stretched to a global initiative; debuting a sign that would dominate the Billboard chart in the early 2000s with The Neptunes; the Billionaire Boys Club & Ice Cream brands that became with mid-2000s streetwear. Those were all generated from things that he believed in and ultimately succeeded in fulfilling. What he couldn’t accomplish at first, he only retooled and persisted until he won. Williams’ slowly morphed from being a producer with model-esque looks — and a knack for wild fashion — to becoming the launch point for soccer moms, viral dance videos and Good Morning America conversations. Not bad for a quiet kid from Virginia.
Pharrell had guested on plenty of hooks by the time “Frontin’” arrived in 2003. That was him, giving the ultimate player’s command on Mystikal’s biggest solo hit “Shake Ya Ass” in 2000. His obtuse, playful falsetto powered Jay Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)” later that year. It only seemed as formality that the Virginia native would create something of his own, for him. “Frontin’” set the tone with his rubbery bass line and easy to mimic drum pattern. He stepped into the role of ladies man for every awkward man in America, confidence enough to take the risk of asking someone out yet self-deprecating enough to pull back just a bit. He told people within earshot that he was eventually going to make an album because that’s what big-name producers did. No one believed he had much of a rap voice or style; the casualness of his voice merely latched onto notes and rode it out.
“Drop It Like It’s Hot”, Snoop Dogg’s only number one hit from 2004 managed to ensnare minds into the belief that a Pharrell album of him purely rapping could work. “I’m a nice dude, with some nice things / See these ice cubes, see these Ice Creams?,” P rapped on the song. It was a calm delivery punctuated with braggadocio. He embodied everything that was success at the time; ownership; the ability to deliver casual threats because he knew people to handle his dirty work. The inevitable had to occur. A Pharrell solo album that encompassed all sides of him was coming. Yet his greatest avenue, the ability to turn silence into an instrument or deep dive into space, his ability to flip chaos into fluent melody — doomed him.
“I wrote those songs out of ego,” he told GQ looking back at the album. “Talking about the money I was making and the by-products of living that lifestyle. What was good about that? What’d you get out of it? There was no purpose. I was so under the wrong impression at that time.”
If you recall Pharrell in 2005 into 2006, you recall the self-designed chains, the flashiness that would make Dapper Dan’s design of the ‘80s look like the decorum of a peasant. In a nifty bit of originality, Pharrell’s promo for In My Mind came two fold. There would be the traditional album roll out; a single to capture initial imagination (“Can I Have It Like That” with Gwen Stefani) followed by the big yacht record (“Number One” with Kanye West). Singing Pharrell could whip up anticipation for many, his cache in crafting records for everybody ensured this. But he still had to step ahead of the curve, before anyone else.
The BAPE Character Generator.
In 2006, rap advertisements hadn’t become completely wedded to the internet. Kanye West’s UniverseCity blog wouldn’t arrive until 2007 on the heels of Graduation. Blog culture wouldn’t peak until 2011 with the New Music Cartel. MySpace still had a foot in the door when it came to relevance and cultural importance. When Pharrell debuted the character generator through a collaboration with BAPE founder Nigo in 2005, it became the avatar for thousands of MySpace profiles.
The avatar translated into simple album art, one that DJ Drama would capitalize on. As a prelude to In My Mind, Drama and Williams teamed for In My Mind: The Prequel in April of 2006. It stands as one of the more underrated discs in Drama’s Gangsta Grillz collection and let Pharrell run wild. On Jeezy’s “Trap Or Die”, he stood bar for bar with T.I. and an emerging Young Dro, laughing at himself. “I’m a great rapper right?” he asked on the close to his verse before the paranoid synths and clanging 808s ushered in Dro’s performance. There he was, flipping ego-filled bars atop Raekwon’s “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” GZA’s “Liquid Swords”, Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid In Full” & more. It allowed Pharrell to be centered knee-deep in his ego but the want, the need to stretch further would continually pull him. By the time In My Mind properly arrived in July of 2006, Pharrell was everywhere — and lacked a center to hold it all in.
On paper, In My Mind should have worked. It shouldn’t have been out sold in its first week by LeToya Luckett’s debut album and a Now This compilation. It had Jay Z still shaking off rust from “retirement” alluding to Beyoncé on “Young Girl”, Snoop Dogg added to a summery two-step in “That Girl”. However, it was far too busy, even for someone who operates slyly by bringing people and sounds into his orbit. Half rap/half pop and R&B, the prolific moments where Williams showed off vulnerability (“Best Friend”) rap wise were doomed by clumsy, outright klutzy delivery. All the confidence displayed on The Prequel was reduced to stutters, off-beat placating and more.
“Best Friend” suffered because just as it detailed losing his grandmother from cancer and playing bystander to the ills of growing up in Virginia Beach, it descends into self-help therapy. It picked up a bit with “You Can Do It Too” where he offered even more slushing moments of his own worth, though it was enjoyable. The lines were affable (“Life’s got a fat ass / Trust me, I’mma f*ck full steam”) yet thanks to P’s boyish nature, you got over them. The pop moments such as “Angel” with its driving pianos and cheesy lines (“She got a ass like loaf of bread / You want a slice…”) and “That Girl” with Snoop Dogg would probably clog up Top-40 radio in this climate. Then, it ultimately fell on deaf ears. He even aped Pusha T & Malice on “Skateboard P Presents Show You How To Hustle,”, a sinister organ and drum move that felt like a B-side to Hell Hath No Fury. “Yeah I escaped, but my memories won’t fail me,” he assured on growing up in VA. In My Mind, even if it wasn’t a failure for Skateboard P diehards, it was one for Williams. He swore he’d never make another solo project, citing that it wasn’t for him.
“The money was too loud. The success was too much,” he told GQ in 2014. “The girls were too beautiful. The jewelry was too shiny. The cars were too fast. The houses were too big. It’s like not knowing how to swim and being thrown in the ocean for the first time. Everything is just too crazy. You’re like, flailing and kicking and whatever, and you know what happens, don’t you? You sink. My spirit sank. I just felt like, ‘Fuck, what am I doing?”
It would be another eight years before Pharrell even considered a sophomore effort and G I R L, the all-R&B effort with the monster single in “Happy” confirmed that he could conquer being a solo act too. But his first foray as a solo act operated much like any of his other endeavors. He wanted to do something that could touch everybody. It was Pharrell as Puff Daddy, Pharrell as Jay, comfortably flexing his ego and muscle because the world had told him he could do it.
And for a brief moment, he did.