The beautiful mind of Pharrell
”Did you see Wedding Crashers?” asks Pharrell Williams, as he cues up a track from his forthcoming solo debut, In My Mind. ”This is a song based on Vince Vaughn’s line ‘That girl is eye-f — -ing the s — – out of me.”’ He’s serious. On the other hand, so is the track (innocuously titled ”Baby”) thumping out of the speakers of a deluxe L.A. recording studio. With its punishing snare attacks, Jacko-style dance breakdowns, and juicy hook, it screams Paris-and-Lindsay-trashy-dancing-on-tabletops. There’s just one small hitch: how to get the superfoxy refrain past those pesky radio censors. What’s the radio edit, we joke, eye-funkin’? ”Whoa,” Williams says. ”You may have just helped me with my problem. That sounds like eye-funkin’, right? Yo, that s — – is f — -in’ crazy! Eye-funkin‘! I might owe you lunch for that one.”
Thanks, but we won’t hold our breath. Williams, 32, is already one of the most overbooked musicians in the biz: With Chad Hugo, he makes up the most dominant pop-music production team of the millennium, the Neptunes, and he fronts their critically acclaimed, genre-blending urban sk8tr boi band, N.E.R.D. Now he’s putting the finishing touches on a 14-track solo opus (due in late November) that could give Kanye West some serious competition in the producer-turned-superstar department.
”He has such a vision for every aspect of culture,” says Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine. ”He’s the modern kid: He likes rock, hip-hop, R&B, he can do it all. We’ve made a big commitment to him,” he adds. ”The first two things he did [after signing to Interscope last year] were Snoop’s ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’ and Gwen’s ‘Hollaback Girl.”’ And with the sweetly galloping soul jam ”Angel” on deck as the second single, Mind has all the makings of a Big Fourth-Quarter Release this year — that will still be pumping out hits four quarters into 2006.
The budding superstar gets help from Stefani (on the space-funky first single, ”Can I Have It Like That”) and Jay-Z, among others. But for the first time, the success — or failure — of this album rests solely with Williams. ”I’ve put my heart and soul into everything I’ve ever done,” he says. ”But these [songs] were just bullets. Before I knew it, there were four [completed songs] and one day I woke up and said, ‘Damn, I think I’m doing an album.”’
As the Neptunes, he and Hugo effortlessly churned out hits for Nelly one minute and Justin Timberlake the next; no matter the genre, they nailed it. ”People think hip-hop has to be hard and R&B has to be soft,” says the gentle-spoken and impossibly baby-faced Williams. ”[But] if somebody gives you two colors — red and blue — and a canvas and a paintbrush, you expect red has to be the devil and blue has to be a Smurf. But with me, why can’t I just finger-paint and make purple?”
The color purple is all over the DNA of Mind, as in the ’80s electro-funk of pop’s purple eminence. ”I think about Prince with some of my R&B records. I think of the freeness about him, how supergallant he was and [how he] just didn’t give a f — -.” Who else inspired Mind? Other than Lauryn Hill (”a genius to me”), he’s not sharing. Could be because he’s worked with just about every major urban artist who matters and doesn’t want to play favorites — or because he’s loath to take credit for their success. ”It’s a very controversial question when you’re trying to be as humble as humanly possible,” he says. ”I’m not one of those drivers who looks to the left or the right all the time…. I look in my rearview sometimes.”