Picture by Neil Lupic
At the age of 41 and with an estimated net worth of $80 million, why would Pharrell Williams bother submitting himself to the rigours of his first ever solo tour now?
Currently riding the third tidal wave of his career thanks to a hat-trick of some of the most successful singles in chart history ('Get Lucky', 'Blurred Lines' and 'Happy') he has somehow managed to better the stranglehold that he and his fellow Neptune, Chad Hugo, shared in the early '00s.
Apparently not content with his celebrated producer role or tenure as part of frap rap outfit N*E*R*D (as well as his multiple fashion lines and being the composer of McDonald's 'I'm Lovin' It' jingle), Williams has now completed his hand by proving himself as a standalone solo artist. He's no longer "feat Pharrell", he's "Pharrell Williams".
The set list for tonight's show is no problem. With so many hits to his name, the issue will most likely be deciding what not to play. The worry, though, is his voice. As sweet and smooth as his whispered falsetto tone is, can it truly stand up on it's own in a live setting, without any famous collaborators on hand to fill in the gaps?
As it turns out, even if Pharrell's voice is weaker than that of a seasoned pro, there really is no time to notice as this is one helluva fast paced, jam-packed gig.
He's backed up by two "incredible" backing singers, whom he rightly praises during the course of the night, and at no point does one wish Miley Cyrus was on hand to help out with 'Come Get It Bae' or that Justin Timberlake was waiting in the wings to complete 'Brand New'.
Every detail of Pharrell's tout ensemble tonight has been well considered. On his feet, his own-design, limited edition red Timberland boots. On his backside, some Adidas jeans taken from his collaborative range with the sports brand that sees their logo plastered brightly across the ass pockets. And I'm not sat close enough to verify, but I'm going to assume that he's doused in his unisex G I R L/Comme Des Garçon perfume as well. On his head, disappointingly, not thatVivienne Westwood Buffalo hat, but something slightly more compressed to the dimensions of a wide brimmed, round-topped fedora. Upon his chest, a vintage Stevie Nicks t-shirt. And on that Benjamin Button face of his, cleanly drawn lines of black kohl around his eyes. Take note boysand girls, as Pharrell Williams sets the fashion agenda for both sexes.
And the music is as perfect as his get up. 'Frontin'', his 2003 debut solo single, is dropped within the first five minutes. He plays a frantic selection of songs that he gave to other artists yet are unmistakably "Pharrell": 'Hot In Herre', 'I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)', 'Pass The Courvoisier', 'Beautiful', 'Drop It Like It's Hot' and 'Hollaback Girl'. Jesus — it's like having a dream, live action jukebox on shuffle.
An N*E*R*D medley — which sees Pharrell ask male fans from the audience to join him onstage for a dance and singalong to 'Rock Star' and 'Lap Dance', and then a separate selection of ladies to partake in 'She Wants To Move' (at the end of which he gives a warm to hug to each girl in turn) — heightens the night's impossibly entertaining vibe further.
However, the faction of the crowd who have come to see "the guy who does the 'Happy' song" are somewhat bemused. A family sat just behind me, who I guess were drawn to Pharrell following his soundtracks for the adorable Despicable Me films, sit lifeless all evening until he breaks out his more recent million-selling hits towards the very end. And even then the result is a mother awkwardly bopping along to 'Blurred Lines' with her awkward adolescent son.
Speaking of which… That song. Never before has a song of such phenomenal success been simulataneously lauded and derided with equal measure as 'Blurred Lines'. Considering the vocal feminist views that have inspired Pharrell's current album G I R L, his discomfort at airing even just a verse of this Robin Thicke-tainted number is clear. "We're all animals," he knowingly changes one line to say, and allows the crowd, who are too busy dancing to engage in a debate about the predatory nature of 'Blurred Lines'' lyrics, to finish the rest. Thankfully, the disco redeemer 'Get Lucky' rushes in soon enough to save Williams' blushes.
Two further Daft Punk-assisted gems see him staging a gorgeously laid back encore with 'Lose Yourself To Dance' and the crowning moment of his latest LP, 'Gust Of Wind' — all the while dressed in a jacket on par with the sparkle factor of Michael Jackson's single glove.
And so, it finally arrives. That other song. Pharrell precedes the gospel-pop of 'Happy' with an uplifting, if overly optimistic, speech about making the world a better place. And yes, we do clap along but as much as a cultural behemoth as 'Happy' has become, tonight has served as a reminder that it is not, by far, Pharrell Williams' greatest achievement, merely his most popular song right now.
Written for Rock's Backpages