Pharrell wants you to feel him. Not just hear, but feel. His already-worshipped G I R L album (out March 3) seeks to serenade and celebrate humanity’s most precious treasure—women (obvi). It’s a funky, sensory experience that incorporates feel-good falsettos, a graphic onomatopoeia (“Gush”), Hans Zimmer’s magnificent strings, a two-step ready pair of Robots, and a lot of outer space metaphors.
“When I was a child, my parents played Earth, Wind & Fire; I felt that as a kid,” Pharrell recalls over the phone. “I don’t know if it was the exotic aroma supplied by my father in the environment—and I’m not talking about incense—but whatever it was, that music made a lasting imprint on me… And that’s the shift right now.”
The Neptunes’ ageless producer/crooner/rapper/whatever-he-wants-to-be has steered popular music culture since he first looped those up hypnotic clavichord keys for N.O.R.E.’s 1998 turn-up anthem “Superthug.” And he’s showing no signs of relinquishing the steering wheel.
“I’m just working, man.” he says in a tone so unostentatious it’s almost frustrating. Virginia’s own musical genius shares the things in his mind in this nine-minute conversation. —John Kennedy
VIBE: Two congratulations are in order. 1) “Happy” topped the Billboard 100 this week. That’s huge!
Pharrell: Thank you.
And 2) You’re probably the first artist to put the word “bae” in a song title. Incredible.
Ah, that’s funny. That’s an old thing in Virginia. My mom calls my dad that. My dad calls my mom that. When I was a kid I used to hear that word all the time. Bae.
And now it’s a Black Twitter staple; gotta love it. So what was the first song you recorded for G I R L and did that pave the sound for the record?
Um, I don’t know. I just started working on a bunch of pieces. Pieces that I felt, like, Oooh, that’s different. Oooh, that feels fresh. It started from there. Then the subject matter was a bunch of things that I wanted to air out. From speaking from a girl’s perspective on “Hunter” to suggesting the social diversity of the standard of beauty on “Marilyn Monroe.” The groove is the essential part but where I can inject medicine I would. So should you be interested, it’s there for you.
Some have called G I R L a “feminist album.” What do you think of that distinction?
Hey, credit is to be given and not to be taken. If I disagree with something, I’ll argue. But I certainly could never call it that because I’m not a woman. I don’t reserve the right to say that. Only some women can determine what that means. And look, I’m about the equality of society across the board. And it’s not perfect. I want to say that: My work is not without flaw. I’m a human being. So I’ma make some mistakes but I hope at the end of the day, what they deduce from it all is the intention to give people an excuse to move and a reason to want to. If I can slide some interesting anecdotes in there, I will. I just want to put some purpose into my work.
Feminism is having an interesting moment: Beyoncé was hailed for her empowering album and Nicki Minaj’s “Lookin’ Ass Nigga” was a powerful statement. Why do you think this is all happening right now?
I think there’s a shift in humanity right now. The way that we used to quantify things were by monetary value and even beyond that, purely aesthetic. But now—from this year on—you’re going to start to see people’s experience become the litmus test of how they really like something. For example, when you walk into a building—how you feel? Not how it looks; how does it make you feel? How does the context of the geometry make you feel? When you see or carry that bag, how does it make you feel? When you listen to that song, how does it make you feel? That is where we’re going as a species. And music is not short of that trend. Kendrick Lamar made one of the most gangster albums ever, but on paper he’s a backpacker, a poet. In the ’50s he would’ve been a Beatnick; in the ’90s he would’ve been affiliated with Tribe or the Hieroglyphics. But in this day and age, he’s something new and different. This guy is just as much a singer/songwriter to me as Dylan. And that’s the shift. Because when you hear Kendrick’s music, you feel something.
True. We’re definitely feeling “Brand New,” where you and Justin Timberlake revive some of that great synergy from his first solo album, Justified. How do you think an album from you two would sound in 2014?
Aw, I can’t tell you that—it would ruin it.
Is that something you could see happening?
It would be awesome. I don’t know. I’m always here for my brother. Please. Anytime. He knows that. Whenever he’s prepared to go on his world takeover. I’m right there at his side. Whenever he’s ready.
And the rumor mill churns. So people have been wondering if you’re going to sign a deal with Adidas—you’ve been sporting it pretty heavily lately. Can you speak at all on the speculations?
I can’t. [laughs]
All good. OK, last question before your publicist hangs up on me: Do you have a favorite Girls character?
I don’t [watch it], but I think that Lena Dunham is like—I see her mark out here. It’s amazing what she’s doing.
If you’ve got 24 hours to spare, peep Pharrell’s marathon-length video for his no. 1 hit, “Happy”