He’s the man with the Midas Touch, it seems; his producing and featured appearances turn to Gold and Platinum records. 40-year-old Pharrell Williams is back on top of the charts with his involvement on two huge summer singles: “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, featuring he and T.I. (a Williams co-write and production) and “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk, where he is a vocalist and co-writer. Understandably, there have been quite a few calls placed to his office for collaborations: he’s featured on new singles by rappers 2 Chainz and Azealia Banks, plus he’s being put to good use on albums by Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, Mayer Hawthorne, Mike Posner and Miley Cyrus, but that list keeps on growing. For a guy who has been in the industry 20+ years, it’s nice to see that he’s a relevant name in the mainstream once again. Yet, it’s all come very fast, and with the radio release of a song he did for Despicable Me 2, “Happy”, he’s bound to be overexposed down the road. How much is too much and how long can Pharrell maintain this sudden momentum? You decide if this is the real thing or just a summer fling.
I guess what gets me most, and maybe a few other analyzers too, is whether this sudden rise in popularity for this jack-of-all-trades is a performer/producer trend or a genre/sound trend, because the former is a little more stable than the latter, but he’s essentially mixed up in both. I’ve noted above that Pharrell is on a number of current and forthcoming projects that will take him through the end of the year should he play his cards right. This is a set of production, vocal and writing credits, so it’s not just focused in one area of the song. Still, his frequent appearances will ultimately get him compared to other acts like Flo Rida, Pitbull, and will.i.am, providing the “rent-a-rapper” break for an act whose label is trying to secure a hit. I’m personally hoping that he doesn’t get caught up in this area, because there’s a high potential of backlash to follow. Go on any music message board (or listen to any mainstream radio station) and you’ll see the dozens of cries in disgust when a new single by an anonymous performer is serviced with the (featuring so-and-so rapper) tag. This isn’t the case in every song he has out right now, but you just wait. It could happen.
So, he’s getting more work today. However, there is a second argument that both songs that he’s featured on, “Lines” and “Lucky”, are also influenced by variations of 70’s disco, a specific sound belonging to a previous era. “Lines” is a party jam inspired by Marvin Gaye‘s #1 hit “Got To Give It Up” (1977), while a co-write by Nile Rodgers on “Lucky” automatically brings up Chic with songs like “Le Freak” (1978) and “Good Times” (1979). (His own single, “Happy”, is a Motown copycat.) Besides these songs, there are a few other throwback singles making their way up the charts: “Safe And Sound” by Capital Cities, for example, is very much rooted in the late 70’s new wave scene and could’ve easily been a Devo song, while “Treasure” by Bruno Mars brings you back to the club, reminiscent of Michael Jackson‘s Off The Wall era. This would reinforce the idea that it’s only a trend given that those two songs are hits at multiple formats. It may only last until the end of the season. It also helps that not everything Pharrell is producing is dated; his current single with 2 Chainz, “Feds Watching”, is just that — sounding like it belongs in 2013, not 1979. Case closed?
Not exactly. It’s going to be at least another few months until we can determine which way popular radio has travelled, at least until “Lines” and “Lucky” finish their chart runs. Remember, these things probably won’t be off the air/out of high rotation until probably September or October. It should be pointed out that although these featured appearances have done wonders for Pharrell, he has only managed one top 40 hit as a main-credited artist, “Frontin'”, which peaked at #5 on the Hot 100 in the later summer of 2003. It featured Jay-Z, and while it was huge at Urban radio, it was only a minor crossover at CHR radio. Let’s be honest, it was out ten years ago; you probably barely remember it if at all. His only solo album to date did moderately well, 2006’s In My Mind, but produced no top 40 singles (though a pair did make the Hot 100.) “Happy”, you little soundtrack single… you don’t really have a bright future, I’m afraid, not that Mr. Williams is scoffing when he’s rolling in plenty of dough.
Regardless of what you think of him, the guy’s come a long way from his first musical number, 1992’s “Rump Shaker” by Wreckx-N-Effect. However, with the kind of exposure he’s getting lately and the unfortunate ageism in the industry, radio and retail may just shake him off sooner rather than later, and that’s not very lucky at all.
Let me know what you think about Pharrell, his musicand his resurgence. Comment below or find me on Twitter: @AdamFSoybel.