Pop goes a Neptune

Pharrell Williams raps his way into a corner
By NICK SYLVESTER  |  August 24, 2006

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MIXTAPE MASTER: Pharrell trumped himself with the street prequel to his official major-label debut.
Pretend you’re a hip-hop producer. For a decade you’ve cut career-defining tracks for Jay-Z, Britney Spears, Snoop Dogg, Justin Timberlake, Nelly, Clipse, you name it. In the process you’ve made a substantial living for yourself, bought an Enzo, started clothing lines and a record label, and branded yourself so well as this nerdy, skateboardy, gangsta-in-his-own-way alterna-superstar that everyone from Louis Vuitton to Hewlett Packard has you shilling for him. Often you sing in a ridiculous amateur falsetto — just you fooling around, as if in the shower or something. Yet other artists will pay big for a quick cameo. Everybody knows you, most like you, many owe you favors. So your solo debut should be awesome, or at least listenable. Right? You can stop pretending now.

There’s something tragically poetic to the idea that Pharrell Williams’s new In My Mind (Interscope) blows so hard. As half of the Neptunes production team, he can make a hit for you but not for himself — there’s not a single good song here. Even more confusing: the album comes on the heels of In My Mind: The Prequel, a brilliant early-spring mixtape that proved the producer-turned-rapper can ride a beat and has a curious narrative to share too, one that turns banal bling materialism and hip-hop self-obsession into endearing childlike fancy.

Then again, last year Pharrell tried to capitalize on Gwen Stefani’s hollabacking by getting her on the hook for “Can I Have It like That?”, an unfocused rap-meets-Bond spy theme that featured Pharrell’s first outing as the MC “Skateboard P.” “She like the way my hands use her body for hand warmers,” Skateboard raps, his flow a forced, huffy distraction. The song disappeared from radio as a proven loser. And still Pharrell uses it to lead off In My Mind.

Mistakes litanize. The come-up anthem “How Does It Feel?” does better with rolling tom-tom beats and syrupy horn tones, but you wonder whether Pharrell’s vague motivational verse could cut it even in the disciplinarian’s office. Things get better on “Raspy Shit,” which has cowbells and a funky bottom and “my money green like the helmet of a fascist,” but the slow jam “Best Friend” ground-zeroes the disc as Pharrell juggles his best friend/co-Neptune, Chad Hugo, his dead grandma, and a hook about his Star Trak label. He rips Kanye West’s nasally delivery on “Keep it Playa” and “That Girl,” forcing rhymes, mangling pronunciations, eliding anything and everything. But Pharrell forgets Kanye’s supreme wit.

“That Girl” rounds out the hip-hop half of In My Mind; the back half is all Stevie-envious, MJ-aspirant R&B, Pharrell’s fragile falsetto extending well past its usual 15-second welcome. On “Young Girl” Jay-Z turns in his softest, most dumbed-down 16 yet. To think that artists turned to Pharrell to make them sound confident, better. . . Now Kanye shouts “Come on!” at Pharrell on “Number One” as if they were at the club and Pharrell couldn’t get his nerve up to approach a woman. Tails between their legs, they’ve never sounded so unconvincing.

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