Pharrell Williams has some serious bling. He has two “proper rings”: One is a 26-carat canary yellow Asher-cut diamond, and the other is a 23-carat white Asher-cut diamond. These are not “going to the club” rings, he said, but are reserved for more special occasions.Williams, one of the hottest producers in hip-hop, also opts for the fashionable/functional. He is currently waiting for famed jeweler to the stars Jacob the Jeweler to finish his gold-plated BlackBerry.
Did Williams ever see himself donning these kinds of accessories, let alone becoming the male face of luxury designer Louis Vuitton, when he was a kid growing up in a Virginia Beach, Va., housing project?
“No way!” he told ABC News.
Now, at 33 years old, he is one of the most sought-after producers in the music industry. He hopes to push the limits of music even further with his first solo album, “In My Mind,” which dropped last week.
The album, which has received mixed and downright negative reviews from Rolling Stone and The New York Times, comes from a place that Williams calls “left of center.”
Williams sees this latest venture as purely artistic and experimental. The purpose of this much-anticipated and much-delayed album is not to make money, although that would be nice, but to break some ground, he said.
“It’s meant to sort of let people in and let my friends into my mind,” he said. “It’s kind of like the director’s cut for the first chapter of my career.”
R&B and Bikers
Williams’ musical story began at age 12, when he started playing the drums, but he had long been surrounded by music.
When he was 9, his family moved from the projects to a modest suburban home that he said was often filled with the sounds of soul music by Earth, Wind and Fire, and the Jackson Five. A biker group called the Renegades lived across the street and exposed Williams to rock.
His musical palette craved diversity from an early age, and he found a kindred spirit in Chad Hugo, whom he met in junior high. The two later formed the Neptunes production company.
Their big break came when they were discovered by Teddy Riley, the producer who’d created the “new jack swing” style of hip-hop. Riley enlisted Williams to write a verse in the 1992 rap hit “Rump Shaker ” by Riley’s group, Wreckx-N-Effect.
It exploded from there. Williams and Hugo are behind some of the biggest hits in recent memory. Remember Justin Timberlake‘s “Senorita” and Britney Spears‘ “Slave 4 U”? The Neptunes is the company behind those songs. The company also produced Gwen Stefani‘s “Hollaback Girl” and Snoop Dogg’s “Drop it Like Its Hot.”
“The whole Neptunes sound was a really different sound when they first started producing,” Leah Rose, music editor of the hip-hop magazine XXL said. “It has more of an ’80s new wave feel — great club music.”
Williams emerged to become the more visible of the two. Using his signature raspy falsetto, he sang the hook on Jay-Z’s “I Just Want to Love You” and on Snoop Dogg‘s “Beautiful.” And more and more, he appears in the videos alongside rappers and voluptuous female dancers.
He also fronted the rock-punk hip-hop band he formed with Hugo and their friend Shae Thornton, NERD, which stands for No One Ever Really Dies. The band, Williams told the BBC last year, is now “dead” due to disputes with the label, Virgin Records.
The Man Behind the Curtain
Williams has said many times that he does not see himself as Dorothy but rather as the Wizard behind the curtain. He “speaks for the people” when he produces, he said, but as a solo performer, he sees himself as skirting the edge of the mainstream and pushing hip-hop in a new direction.
“That is what I take pride in. I am always switching it to the left and to the right, up down — cater-corner,” Williams said.
“It’s meant for a different crowd. My fans are forward thinkers; they all aspire to do their own sh-t,” he said of “In My Mind,” which he calls a boutique album.
Artistic integrity alone is a noble cause, but sometimes danger lies in being too left of center, said Benjamin Meadows-Ingram, the senior editor at Vibe magazine.
“He seems fascinated by the idea by doing things that are left of center; that’s what gets him off professionally and creatively. It’s questionable how much of an impact this will have as far as shifting the sound,” Meadows-Ingram said. “If Jay-Z came out and made this album — a massive, massive rapper — I think you would have a bigger shift.”
A problem with the experimental and artistic approach Williams takes in “In My Mind” is that at times it seems too indulgent, Meadows-Ingram said. Producer-turned-rapper Kanye West, who collaborates with Williams on the single “Number One,” does a better job of appealing to a mass audience, Meadows-Ingram said.
Yet many said that this mutability is what lies at the root of Williams’ success. Lately, he has been everywhere. Not only does he sing, rap and produce, but he also has followed the likes of Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Jay-Z into the design arena with his clothing lines Ice Cream, which is casual, and Billionaire Boys Club, which he said is a mix between Ralph Lauren and Willy Wonka. Williams, who often calls himself “Skateboard P” when rapping, also sponsors the Ice Cream skateboarding team.
It seems as though Williams is reaching for that mythical level of an artist like Prince, whom Williams called “the king.” Prince has long since left the mainstream, but thanks to his devoted fans, will always sell records.
“I don’t think him being an artist is the end all and be all of Pharrell — he does like a million and one things,” Rose said. “He’s sort of at the point where he can do anything he wants.”
Meadows-Ingram said Williams may sometimes be out there, but he’s never boring. “He’s one of those artists that no matter what he does, you cannot ignore him.”