Name a pop music A-lister, and he or she has either worked with Pharrell Williams or probably wants to. Gwen Stefani, Jay-Z, Britney Spears, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg and Madonna all fall into the first category.
But as he has transformed himself into one of the three or four most important figures in popular music as half of the production team the Neptunes—not to mention his work as a fashion designer, model and single-named icon—Williams has managed to keep an important part of his past with him.
The band N.E.R.D., which Williams formed several years ago with childhood friends Chad Hugo and Shae Haley, is more than just the side project for which it's often mistaken. It's more than merely the outlet for all the songs that don't fit the sleek template the Neptunes have created—a futuristic fusion of skeletal R&B and hip-hop that has launched what seems like a thousand hits, including Britney's "I'm a Slave 4 U," Nelly's "Hot in Herrre," Justin Timberlake's "Rock Your Body" and Kelis' "Milkshake."
"It's simply the way we truly express ourselves," Williams says of N.E.R.D. "I'm pretty sure Chad and Shae feel the same way."
The fact that one of music's busiest men is taking time to do this interview (from the New York offices of his label, Star Trak) says something about his commitment to the project. But as N.E.R.D. prepares to release a third album, N.3.R.D., which the group will support as part of Kanye West's "Glow in the Dark," Williams sounds more than just enthusiastic. He sounds, perhaps, relieved.
"If you get the right copy of the album," Williams says, "you'll hear me say at the beginning, 'It's been awhile since we were able to express ourselves.' That was really important."
Getting Williams to actually describe the sound of N.3.R.D., and how it compares with the mash-up of R&B slink, Steely Dan smarts and alt-rock muscle of the band's first two albums, is a bit more problematic. The phrases Red Bull and a nice, refreshing drink of water come up more than once, as do the words energy and emotion.
"Well, there's no resemblance to anything we've done before," he says. "There's fingerprints of it, but you can't compare it to anything else, and I'm not just saying that to sound hip."
Maybe Williams is just glad to be back in a group setting. After having embarked on a short solo career that produced 2006's In My Mind, which received mixed reviews from critics, Williams sounds apologetic.
"I hadn't thought it out fully," he says with a sigh.
For the time being, Williams sounds at ease just being one-third of N.E.R.D., and he says he looks forward to touring in support of the new album, which is due out "probably in late June." But with "Pharrell" still being something of a household name, one wonders whether it's been difficult for Williams to maintain the same relationship he used to with his old friends and bandmates from his hometown of Virginia Beach, Virginia.
"No, no, it hasn't," he insists. "Because those are my boys, one. And two, Chad and I still do a lot of stuff together."