F1 Abu Dhabi: Pharrell Williams, the man with the golden touch
What’s On profiles Pharrell Williams ahead of the F1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The ‘Happy’ star will perform at du Arena’s after-race concerts.
Oprah Winfrey in a recent interview showed Pharrell Williams homemade videos of fans around the world. A group of girls poolside in Taiwan, schoolchildren in Malawi, suits in Belfast – dancing and singing to his song Happy. When the camera cut back to Oprah and Pharrell, she was handing him tissues. “Why,” he said, “am I crying on Oprah?”
It’s true that tears on Oprah – far a from an uncommon occurrence – is not behaviour traditionally expected of an artist from the hyper-masculine world of hip hop. But, then, Pharrell Williams is not your average hip hop artist.
In 2003 the Neptunes produced almost 20 per cent of songs on British radio and 43 per cent played on US radio. It should come as no surprise that over the past decade Williams has established himself as the go-to man to guarantee a hit. But while enjoying success as a producer unparalleled in the 21st century, he struggled to recreate those same successes in his solo career. That is, until recently.
The Neptunes – the name under which Williams and school friend Chad Hugo work – took the Producer Of The Decade title at the 2009 Billboard R&B/Hip Hop Awards. The duo is responsible for launching, and revitalising the careers of Kelis, Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, Snoop Dogg, Jay Z, Gwen Stefani and Britney Spears. The pair are among the most successful producers in music. N*E*R*D – a band consisting of Williams, Hugo and rapper Shay Haley – enjoyed moderate success across four albums.
Pharrell’s first solo album, In My Mind, flopped. But Neptunes kept making hits. Williams continued his guest appearances and it looked like he would forever stand in the shadows of those he helped succeed. He had his record label, his fashion brands and his ‘multi-media creative collective’, i Am Other. But during this time a relationship blossomed. In 2003 the Neptunes reworked Daft Punk’s Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.
Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo returned the favour, co-producing Hypnotize U from 2010 N*E*R*D record Nothing. When Pharrell featured on Daft Punk’s fourth album, Random Access Memories, everything changed. Get Lucky, helmed by Williams, was 2013’s biggest track. His solo album, Girl, is a global number one. Happy is 2014’s biggest song.
“Some people would prefer him just to be a producer,” BBC DJ Trevor Nelson said, “but he looks like a pop star. He looks like he should be on the cover, rather than on the back of the album in the production credits.”
So how did he do it? The key to Williams’ solo success is collaboration. There are no fewer than 23 personnel credits on Girl. Alongside a string of session musicians are the names Daft Punk, Miley Cyrus, Hans Zimmer, and Justin Timberlake. Timbaland, himself a great producer, is listed on the track Brand New as ‘beatboxing’.
Nothing is accidental. Pharrell uses the best tools to realise his vision; those tools just happen to be major pop stars. Critics may ask questions of quality control. He is a gun for hire, seemingly available to anyone, for the right price. But he also exudes ceaseless creativity.
Whether or not his work brought him recognition, you imagine he’d still be sitting with Hugo, experimenting with instruments. For the boys who played in a marching band at home in Virginia, music is music.
Saturday November 22
Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi 5pm, Dhs365. Tel: (800) 927. Taxi: Yas Marina Circuit. yasmarinacircuit.com