Friday, August 04, 2006

CD Review: In My Mind by Pharrell

Pharrell Williams is one of the most multifaceted people involved in popular music today. He and childhood friend Chad Hugo make up the production duo known as The Neptunes. They have worked with a dizzying array of artists from Britney Spears to No Doubt to Jay-Z. In addition to producing hits for a variety of artists, Pharrell often lends his vocals to the tracks he produces. His familiar falsetto can be heard crooning the hooks on many Neptunes-produced tracks and he also raps as witnessed on Snoop Dogg's hit single "Drop It Like It's Hot." Pharrell is the frontman for the rock group N.E.R.D. who have released two albums so far. He and Chad also run a record label, Star Trak, which is the home to such artists as Clipse, Slim Thug, Robin Thicke, and Snoop Dogg. Pharrell has a clothing line (Billionaire Boys Club) and his own line of sneakers (Ice Cream). He is collaborating with Marc Jacobs to design a jewelry line for Louis Vuitton and will become the first black male to be the face of that legendary label.

Pharrell Williams is the epitome of crossover potential.

This is why his debut solo album, In My Mind, has been hotly anticipated. When left to his own devices, what kind of music would this producer/artist turn out? Well, the answer is...more of the same stuff he's done in the past. It's not a bad album but your mileage will vary depending on your expectations. If you're expecting nothing more than Pharrell singing and/or rapping over some club-friendly beats, then you'll like this album. If you're expecting an album near the level of The Chronic or even The College Dropout, you'll be disappointed.

In My Mind, which was originally rumored to be a double album, has two distinct parts to it. The first part (songs 1-7) is hip-hop while the second part (songs 8-14) is R & B. The first part is only slightly better than the second part if only because it's easier to listen to Pharrell rap for a period of time than it is to listen to him sing. Two of the album's best songs are contained in the first part of the album. "Raspy Shit" doesn't blaze any new lyrical trails but the bluesy, bass-heavy beat stands out. It's immediately followed by "Best Friend," a song that gives us a rare glimpse into Pharrell's past. As he reflects on his childhood during the verses, the chorus has his best friend encouraging him to open up: "You won't even know you're hurt sometimes/Until you in conversations/It comes out in the lines/So let it out, P/Let it out, P."

"Angel" is probably the best song on the album's second half. Even though it's kind of cheesy and some of the lyrics are kind of silly ("She got an ass like a loaf of bread/You want a slice"), the music really hooks you from the beginning with piano and those familiar Neptunes drums. Also, it's just long enough to not wear out its welcome but ends up leaving you wanting more. "Number One," the current single, is a song that really could've been better than it is. It has a nice, bouncy, fluttery beat that's reminiscent of old-school Michael Jackson. However, Kanye West almost ruins the song with his annoying (and neverending) ad-libs and a subpar verse. Unlike Kanye, Nelly doesn't do anything to ruin "Baby," a song with one of the more unusual beats on the album. A pounding drum keeps things going as electric guitar and synths seem to fight each other to dominate the proceedings. "Our Father" is an appealingly simple ode to Jesus Christ over a smoothed out beat. Pharrell really sounds kind of innocent as he sings out things like "Thank you for my brothers/Thank you for my daddy" and for some reason, that innocence makes the song sound a little more sincere than other rappers' songs about God.

If there is one big problem with In My Mind, it is that many of the songs are just average. Collaborations that should have been great end up being more "meh." "That Girl" featuring Snoop Dogg is no "Beautiful" and Jay-Z doesn't really even try on the 80's-sounding "Young Girl." "You Can Do It Too," a jazz-flavored song that tries to inspire people to chase their dreams, doesn't really make that much of an impact despite an appearance by Jamie Callum. Other songs like "Stay With Me" just fade into the ether.

Listening to In My Mind really gives you an idea what impact Chad Hugo has on The Neptunes' sound. Pharrell produced this album all by his lonesome and for all the interesting, bouncy beats on this album, something still feels missing. Pharrell is immensely talented as a producer but the beats on In My Mind are missing the elements to push them into the inventive yet simple brilliance of the best Neptunes tracks. The bonus track, "Skateboard P Presents: Show You How To Hustle," comes the closest with its gritty, organ-driven beat.

In My Mind is not a bad album. It will probably be in my CD rotation for a few weeks. Even a lackluster Pharrell song is still more creative than some of the stuff on the radio right now. However, this album is not as good as you want it to be either. Pharrell at the very least probably has a long career ahead of him as a producer and if he decides to make another solo album, I hope he spends less time sticking within predefined boundaries and more time breaking them instead.

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