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Revenge of the N.E.R.D.

Damn, how many times was Pharrell’s long-awaited, much-hyped solo debut, In My Mind, pushed back from its original release date? Three, four, seventy? How many singles, lavish videos and Internet “leaks” simply tanked with the masses? None of it had traction. That much label foot dragging, coupled with that huge a yawn from the public, gave rise to industry and blogosphere speculation that the album was bad, despite the fact that some of the singles (“Angel,” “Number One”) were actually decent if wholly disposable pop-fluff. (True, some of the lyrics to “Angel” are just ass.) The problem is not that Skateboard P is a horrible rapper, as many of his detractors claim; his level of microphone passion is off the charts, and more often than not, he’s actually kinda witty in his wordplay. And it’s not that he’s a bad singer; his wannabe-Mayfield falsetto falls short of that high-water mark but still conjures a sense of fun, playfulness and non-thuggish black male sexuality that is refreshing in the current pop/hip-hop marketplace.

The unconquerable glitch is that Pharrell — singer, rapper, pop-star persona, partner in the producing duo the Neptunes and the rock project N.E.R.D. — has no texture, no gravitas. No real presence. He doesn’t resonate. Singers as weak as Kelis, Gwen Stefani and even Britney Spears have soared with him as their behind-the-boards guy (often along with his partner in grooves, Chad Hugo) because they have enough charisma or spunk or just assured sense of self to drizzle his already powerful tracks with star quality. Rappers as varied as the Clipse, Snoop, Mystikal and Nelly — just for starters — have been able to match P’s studio swagger with their own for some classic rap collaborations. While the spinal beats on In My Mind are almost all aw, yeah/aw, yeah pulverizing, and the computerized funk/hip-hop-soul tracks in total are hard but fluid, gleaming and magnetic (Pharrell, the producer, is truly just as fly as he wants to be), the man at the center of all that knob-twisting handiwork is less a dud than a void. He’s the flip side to Dr. Dre, a similarly nondescript individual whose talent and influence loom large. But where P has let his TRL-ready physicality convince him he should be a front man, the unpretty Dre has largely hung in the shadows and on the sidelines, even when he’s center frame in a video.

Part of the problem is that P hasn’t really been able to persuasively or interestingly synthesize all the parts of his private life and corporate-logo selves: the high-school-marching-band nerd with the geeky haircut who grew up to be an airbrushed Louis Vuitton spokesman; the skinny, tatted black sk8ter boi who morphs into a conventionally upgraded version of himself, with bling dripping from chest and wrists; the Dickies-wearing, alterna-rock–listening indie Negro kid with pretty-boy aspirations and fuck-a-model dreams; the New Jack–spawned hip-hop fiend who grew into a multipronged, international corporation. It’s a dynamic equation whose sum as a public persona is much less than its complex parts, because the evolutionary arc of his many selves is pitched so hard toward the status quo. He is an American/Negro, after all. To the extent that he pops at all, it’s because his hunger to be a pop star is in-your-face palpable.

In the midst of all the CD posing, bravado, name checking and product placement for his own shit (his Ice Cream line of overpriced footwear), Pharrell drops one track, “You Can Do It Too,” that really does stand a cut above. It captures the contradictions and layers of mixed messages that he and the larger realm of hip-hop have both received and pumped out. ?You hear him wrestling with his own insecurities and victories, with his base and better selves. ?It’s a peek inside the head of “wealthy niggas with a conscience,” and despite the streak of corniness in its message of uplift, it feels raw in his delivery.

My nigga you can do it, too.

I was in marching band, I was a skateboarder.

Jesus made wine, I couldn’t make water . . .

You niggas was cool in school, now you niggas take orders.

I’m not dissing your job . . .

Don’t gasp for air, you could turn blue . . .

It don’t matter if you do drugs or even if you threw slugs.

You can do it too, young blood.

I did it, you can do it too . . .

The song sticks because even though Pharrell’s empathy is performed and by definition theatrical, it also seems to come from a place beyond the simple desire for stardom or the need to prove anything to doubters or naysayers. It’s not the track that’ll get the party started or set car stereos bumping. As stated earlier, it dips deep into corn. With its vague jazz inflections and moody atmospherics, it unapologetically taps into the American (especially the American o’ color) propensity for sentimentality. But in doing so, it lets Pharrell muse on the call and costs of exaggerated material wealth, on the sadness and frustration that linger behind lack. And it lets him connect the dots between his inchoate self and the poster boy for ____ that he has become.

PHARRELL | In My Mind | Star Trak/Interscope


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