Note: I wrote this track by track review prior to knowing it would be nominated for Album of the Year. So this may not follow the same pattern as the other 4 posts in this Grammys series.
There at least three possible arguments for why I completely missed on this album two months ago.
The first is the typical excuse: I was too busy and wasn’t paying attention to music enough in the wake of Grammy season and was focusing more on class, my book project and my impending pilgrimage to Burma. This sounds good, but it’s mostly just an excuse.
Second, where was the promotion for this album?! I never heard anything about it – heck, Billboard announced it’s release date less than two weeks before it dropped on March 3. It seems like it blindsided the whole industry: “Happy” was majorly circulated with Despicable Me 2 coming out in the fall, and his heavy collaborations with Daft Punk on R.A.M. and with Miley Cyrus/Robin Thicke/T.I. on “Blurred Lines” didn’t really leave the possibility for a solo record. Besides, last time he put out any solo work – In My Mind, in 2006 – it didn’t necessarily dominate my iTunes.
The third reason is the most interesting. About two years ago, I started wondering if N*E*R*D – Pharrell’s band along with The Neptunes co-producer Chad Hugo and Shay Haley – would put out a new record to follow up their disappointing Nothing from 2010.
So I set up a Google Alert for any news on N*E*R*D’s new record.
I got weekly updates for about a year, but nothing substantial on the record front. Then, in 2013, I finally started seeing some stuff circulating about how they were working on a new record, but that it wouldn’t be released for a while because of Pharrell’s side work. I guess I just assumed that if N*E*R*D wasn’t putting out something new anytime soon, then Pharrell certainly wouldn’t put out something on his own. Just didn’t compute.
Then in late March someone, I forget who, asked me what I thought of Pharrell’s new album that I didn’t even know existed at that point. And then I got caught up in my excuses again and forgot to download it.
All that to say – and it’s a lot, in retrospect – I finally picked up the album last week and haven’t stopped to listen to anything else. All last week on The West Coast, this was my jam.
It’s been referred to as a “pseudo-feminist” concept album, seemingly in response to his affiliation with the controversial “Blurred Lines” performance from the 2013 VMAs. It’s clear that he wanted to rebrand himself as…something else.
These days, it seems like anything Pharrell touches turns to gold. “Blurred Lines” was huge. I don’t think I’ve spent a day anywhere in this country over the past month without hearing “Happy” two or three times. And “Get Lucky” was the hugest of them all taking home top Grammy nods this year on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.
And yet, I did not expect this solo album to be as good as it is. Here’s a track by track look at G I R L.
1. Marilyn Monroe
First of all, Hans Zimmer did all the strings on this album, and this one is the stringiest there is. A gorgeous orchestral arrangement opens the album and is coupled with some Nile Rodgers-esque guitar riffs a la “Get Lucky”. The track opens the feminist theme, questioning why he would ever want to lose the girl that even Marilyn Monroe, Cleopatra or Joan of Arc can compare to.
2. Brand New (Duet with Justin Timberlake)
One of the perks of completely missing on an album is that you don’t build up any expectation for should-be killer collaborations. This track is a little cheesy, especially the bridge, but I guess that’s what we should expect from a song about how a woman makes a man a better person – a “brand new” man, if you will. And a little Timbaland beatbox intro really, because JT can’t go anywhere without him apparently. Also, did you know: Pharrell and Timbaland were friends as kids?
Not my favorite track, which is surprising because it has a heavy N*E*R*D sound to it. Goofy lyrics. Simple looped guitar riff. The occasional heavy breathing in the background. It’s Pharrell doing his best impression of himself sans Hugo and Haley.
A transition song, but a strong one. Sure, Pharrell wants to respect and not abuse the woman that makes him better, but that doesn’t mean he’s doesn’t want to get a little dirty. The chorus here is strong. Zimmer returns with the orchestra.
5. Happy (From “Despicable Me 2”)
We all know this song. Not really necessary to write about it other than to say that it’s a super fun doo-wop that I still catch myself snapping my fingers along with. But c’mon man. Track 5? This song startles me every time I’m listening to the album. I skip it about 75% of the time.
6. Come Get It Bae (Feat. Miley Cyrus)
This song has the feel of a group drumming on 5 gallon plastic buckets on a street corner. Lots of claps. A hint of strings and guitar. But mostly a stomp-style groove. This song is all about riding a motorcycle. But it’s a metaphor, you guys. Surprisingly, I actually like what Miley adds to this song – although, the “hey!” that runs throughout the song gets really old really fast.
7. Gust of Wind (Feat. Daft Punk)
Not shocking, but this is in the conversation for my favorite track. Marilyn Monroe is the front runner, but this one is right there too. Those robot vocoder voices are just so mesmerizing. I can’t help myself.
8. Lost Queen
The album takes a turn here. This song feels like it should be the last track. It brings us back to the “taking care of you is my number one thing” theme. Tribal hums and bongos drums give the first half of this song a raw human quality, and it’s reflected in the lyrics. Earth is so messed up, but this “Lost Queen” is so perfect it has to be from some other planet. This track is 8 minutes long. The middle minute is nothing but the sound of crashing waves. The second half feels like we’ve moved off Earth and into outer space. Probably Pharrell trying to communicate where this woman takes him.
9. Know Who You Are (Duet with Alicia Keys)
Alicia Keys!? Woah. This feels surprising for some reason. They seem to be from different edges of the hip hop spectrum for some reason. Pharrell gets me moving and pumps me up. Alicia’s voice just melts everything. It’s a decent song, but I can’t get over that dichotomy when I listen to it.
10. It Girl
This song is a short lyrical wrap up with an extended outro to close the album. It also has one of the best moments on the album when Pharrell takes his voice as high as it’ll go – so high that I don’t really know what he says. It’s a song with a bunch of nautical terms in relation to how this “It Girl” just does it for Pharrell: seasick without her, she’s got his compass spinnin’, her waves crash over him and and her tide pulls him in. It’s a metaphor, you guys.
Overall, it’s a very strong album, and Pharrell’s gold-touch apparently works with his solo stuff too. He even makes that goofy Arby’s hat look good.
Side note: I’ve been told on two separate occasions that I look like Pharrell. I don’t see it, but maybe you do.
Another side note: nearly all these track titles would make terrific horse names for next year’s Kentucky Derby.
Top Tracks: Marilyn Monroe, Gust of Wind, Gush
For other reviews up for Album of the Year…