Though he routinely denies it--including about seven times in the half-hour I spend with him--Pharrell Williams is dying to be a rock star. You can tell with one look, if he's got one of his trademark mesh trucker's caps on, an ugly yellow or red thing with a crude depiction of a cornfield or a locomotive or maybe those lascivious Rolling Stones lips emblazoned on its front. If he's without the accessory, like he is today, you can tell by the way he distracts you from your job at hand: In my case, that's threatening to jump off the hotel balcony we're standing on in the middle of downtown Boston while I try to ask him questions about his music. He's been doing this since the friendly guy with the overactive cell phone and the artfully trimmed facial hair who's currently acting as Williams' handler accompanied me in the elevator up to Williams' floor and introduced me to one-half of the by-now-ubiquitous production duo the Neptunes.
If in the last year you've spent even a day outside of a sensory deprivation tank--even if you haven't, probably--you've no doubt heard Williams and partner Chad Hugo's handiwork: a sleazy, shaggy distillation of Timbaland's skittering, slippery beats fused to Curtis Mayfield's scratchy old soul and Keith Richards' chicken-scratch blues. It's a sound that's genius in the way a lot of stuff in the 21st century probably will be, a retrofitted throb that functions as the quintessence of modernity in spite of its astoundingly obvious lifts from pre-existing source material. As with Bowie or Madonna, you've heard this song before, but never in this key.
Or maybe never this often. The Neptunes are right now working at the top of the hip-hop food chain, virtually dominating urban radio with a battery of hits as inescapable as Teddy Riley's new jack swing once was. In a sense, it's easy to see why Williams and Hugo's sound has become as saturated as it has: As hip-hop and R&B increasingly lord over Top 40 radio, breeding a generation of youngsters for whom turntables and guitars are natural complements, a juicy cross-pollination is bound to occur. The result is a climate in which someone like Jay-Z, once a paragon of hip-hop's austere heart of darkness, follows up a hit that cribs from Annie with the Neptunes-helmed "I Just Wanna Love U," which samples a wicked flute line from The Gods Must Be Crazy and slithers like Axl Rose's hips. Williams and Hugo are at the center of this cultural to-and-fro, and the utterly pop feel of their signature tunes (Ludacris' "Southern Hospitality," Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass," Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Got Your Money," all of which locate testosterone-spewing tough guys in the middle of a slinky groove and slinky sylph Prince would approve) is defining the cultural context of a nation of young people.
But apparently that's not enough for Williams. Thus the hats. And the balcony-jockeying. And In Search Of..., the fantastic new record he and Hugo have just made under the moniker of their N.E.R.D. project. And, perhaps most tellingly, the rock-star answers he's giving me today in Boston. Witness:
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Me: So why N.E.R.D. and not just the Neptunes?
Williams: Because we wanted to put an identity, actual perspectives, out, versus just coloring other people's perspectives. It's usually making beats or writing lyrics for someone else, and that's still in a sense more so crayons than the actual coloring book. This is just a whole new coloring book.
Right, then. Better than, "Because we wanted to take it to the next level," anyway.
Of course, that's pretty much what they've done with In Search Of..., a record bursting with creativity and the kinds of ideas that make you start to believe all that shit you read in college about postmodernism. All that shit you've been reading in The Source, too, about how hip-hop is winding itself down a pop boulevard it will never come back from, unless Mos Def, who has a pop-punk band, and ?uestlove, who's working with Zach de la Rocha, can help it.
The best thing on the record is "Provider," which is pretty much on some whole other shit, grafting the customary Neptunes wriggle to a Lynyrd Skynyrd-type highwayman's lament, bumping and grinding as much as shucking and jiving--think Wyclef's "Gone Till November" but without Clef's need to make everything sound like a Sting B-side. Like much of the Neptunes' material, it's not actually doing as much as you think it's doing (unlike Clef's recent stuff, which you can't believe is doing as little as it's doing), but that's why it's so great and, especially, why it sounds so much like now. How dotcom is it to make something that's lesser than the sum of its parts? Williams is typically obtuse when I ask.
"When I'm writing and producing and playing, I'm thinking about the girl I'm gonna marry one day. Chad's thinking about his wife and his children. We're thinking about the only things that inspire us every day. My drive and motivation is finding that perfect girl, man." He pauses, making sure he's completely lost me. "That imperfect girl, that girl that's just right. She's not perfect, but she's..." He trails off, completely lost himself. Which is surprising, because for every other minute in our conversation, he seems completely together, totally sure of himself and, by extension, his music. His pager goes off about once every five minutes, but every time he checks the message, he keeps talking, telling me about working with 'N Sync or Angie Martinez or how into Kraftwerk he was growing up. I'm starting to like him--he's so charming when he turns down a new drink from the room service person, I sort of want to get one for him--so I indulge his penchant for rock-star soliloquies by asking him how In Search Of... differs from what he and Hugo have done as the Neptunes. He doesn't even stop to consider.
"This album is for your mind; it's not for me. It's for you to find out, whatever it is that you're trying to find out or you to find whatever it is that you're looking for. It's not about us. It's about you. We want the listeners to buy the album, man, and let it work for you. Because if it's vision that you need when you're having sex, play that record. If it's vision that you need when you're tripping, play that record. If it's vision that you need when you're drinking, play the record. If you're taking a long drive, play the record. Each song's a question and answer. That's what makes it brilliant, to me. But if you think about it in terms of you, it will reveal itself to you."
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