Pharrell Williams’ debut solo album opens where most of his previous work with N.E.R.D. and the Neptunes left off: in the bedroom. Over a grinding bass, Pharrell asks, ”Can I Have It Like That,” to which Gwen Stefani snaps back, Yes, he can. Charts have been topped with less, but Pharrell never commits to putting his hips into it. His thoughts drift from the sure thing in front of him to his life and achievements, and the song fades without a climax.
For an artist who’s never denied himself a moment’s pleasure, ”Can I Have It Like That” is an odd opener, and it foretells an even odder album to come. On half of In My Mind, Pharrell tries to distance himself from his rep as the immaculately dressed emcee of all good times with the kind of spare, introspective rap that’s made Common hip-hop’s intellectual idol. On the rest, he pals around with marquee names (Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg) in his goofy falsetto R&B comfort zone. If In My Mind seems divided against itself, rest assured that all of the songs have something in common: They’re not remotely catchy.
On ”Best Friend,” Pharrell begins, ”My best friend said I’m bottled up, I need a f—ing therapist,” before revealing the pain he felt when his grandmother died. It’s sad — dead grandmothers are — but with just a few minimalist beats and synth squeaks beneath him, there’s nothing musically to build tension or support the emotion. Minimalism also haunts ”You Can Do It,” a motivational speech in which he cites his own relative exceptionalism as a reason for others to keep dreaming. The song sprawls over five minutes of a tinkling, Doors-like fugue, and you get the sense that Pharrell feared that mixing danceable grooves and heavier material would somehow undermine his cred as a thinker — as if smart guys can’t get down. But the lack of anything hummable ends up magnifying his lyrics, and up close they don’t look so hot; he makes the rookie mistake of confusing sincerity with depth.
Pharrell is better when he’s not trying so hard to impress. ”Raspy S—,” a funk takedown of groupies, provides a welcome bit of exuberance (as well as the album’s only memorable riff — and a cowbell!), while ”Take It Off (Dim the Lights)” lets Pharrell slip into his always hilarious loverman persona (”I’m a master, baby, with your bra,” he shrieks). In flashes, Pharrell makes fun seem effortless, but too often he relies on the cameos, letting the mere appearance of a famous voice stand in for actual songwriting. The worst example is ”Number One,” a duet with Kanye West in which hip-hop’s top producers declare their song a hit without actually bothering to make one. The only people they can possibly be gratifying are themselves.