In 1980, Motown had Stevie Wonder hasten Hotter Than July into production to reassure the public that the world’s most pleasure-inducing pop composer hadn’t been lost through the photosynthesis of the indulgent Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. The result was the most elegantly, cleanly entertaining album of his career.
Now Pharrell Williams, who just shared a Grammy stage with Wonder, and whose R&B grooves often owe more than just a passing resemblance to the legend, is rather hurriedly unleashing his first album in close to a decade off the heels of a triumvirate of unambiguous pop successes: Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” and his own “Happy.” It’s appropriate that it took the last ditty so comparatively long to surmount the apex of the Billboard charts, because it works far better as a parlay into the gentlemanly feel-good offerings on G I R L.
The simple beauty of “Happy” is that, despite a few hints of its true nature as a kiss-off track, it’s one of those songs that creeps up on you through its persistent eagerness. It’s not just the most-played song of the moment, but it also may very well be the most broadly played across a variety of formats: Like “Hey Ya!” before it, “Happy” slots comfortably on R&B, adult contemporary, NPR-affiliated alternative, and, yes, even EDM-overrun Top 40. And its ambitious video, a 24-hour cycle of Los Angelinos dancing their way through the city (e.g. Union Station, Hollywood Boulevard, the Hills, a morgue) via one seamless rear-tracking shot, set off its own series of YouTube tribute videos that, in their reflection of a collective joygasmic experience, form the angelic bookend to the craze of “2 Girls, 1 Cup” reaction videos from a few years back.
Which is to say, again, that G I R L is an act of selective erasure, a corrective to “Blurred Lines,” which is probably one reason why it’s not called G O O D G I R L. With an opening flourish that calls to mind The 20/20 Experience, the album’s first track, “Marilyn Monroe,” doesn’t blur lines so much as it tries to eradicate them entirely, pushing aside not just Monroe, but Joan of Arc and Cleopatra in order to get women of all shapes and sizes out on the dance floor. “We cannot help who we’re attracted to,” he croons, still not a player, but just someone who has crushes a lot. Fresh, sunny vamps (which I’ve seen one other critic privately tarnish as “corny cruise ship shit”) overwhelm the brief album, so even when Williams calls back to his ruthless Neptunes collaboration with Busta Rhymes and interjects, “I’ll light that ass on fire,” in the middle of the gynecological “Gush,” you still picture an idyllic bubbling brook instead of, well, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge.
But the hastiness in which the album was apparently assembled becomes apparent in the two tracks that almost explicitly dovetail off of Williams’s summer-owning two shot. In “Gust of Wind,” Daft Punk returns last year’s favor, with their robotic voices joining Williams in retro chorus, and “Hunter” kicks off with the same three chintzy beats that, six months ago, made “urrybody get up.” Furthermore, the grown-folks easy-listening mode and magnanimous overtures only go so far before it starts to dawn just how prescriptive G I R L gets post-“Marilyn Monroe.” “I think you’re a lost queen,” he editorializes. “I know who you are, and I know what you’re feeling,” he tells Alicia Keys on “Know Who You Are.” “Take it easy on the clutch, ’cause girl I like you,” he and Miley Cyrus sing in unison on “Come Get It Bae.” As Williams tells it, the Despicable Me 2 team made him go through eight drafts before he arrived at the disarming, first-person charm of “Happy.” G I R L may have benefited from a few more introspective trips back to the drawing board.