Pharrell, a longtime favorite producer of mine, is releasing a new album tomorrow, entitled G I R L.
It’s release is similar to his last solo release, 2006’s IN MY MIND which could easily have ended any hopes of a sustainable solo career for Pharrell. It started with a surprise, unintentional hit. As a part of a compilation album he made as a part of his production group, The Neptunes, Pharrell dropped “Frontin” as a single, his first release as a solo artist. The song soared up the charts and became a summer hit, buoyed by the characteristics of the then popular sparse brand of space-funk he was producing for other pop artists (think Kelis’ “Milkshake”).
The past year, as a part of his work for DESPICABLE ME 2, Pharrell released “Happy” as a single. The song soared up the charts and claimed the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100, buoyed by the characteristics of the now popular melodic brand of retro-soul he was producing for other pop artists (think Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”).
The problem with IN MY MIND was that it was overly sexual and juvenile and that the production was careful and uninspired. It was a very personal sounding album, to a fault. It was inaccessible, especially compared with his well known work for other artists. So far, looking at early reviews of G I R L, it has many of the same problems. But I have a feeling that this album will be successful, at least commercially. Even if it’s largely the same caliber of work as IN MY MIND.
Why? We’re in the middle of Comeback Season. As touched on by this Forbes article, some of the biggest hits of the past year have come from artists either making a comeback, or entering a second (or in some cases, third) phases of their careers.
It started with Justin Timberlake. Like Pharrell, his last solo release was in 2006. He spent 2013 dropping an epic double album, released in two parts, paired with instantly viral television appearances (which should continue, now that his TV buddy is host of The Tonight Show) winning awards and going on expansive tours.
The first tour was a stadium tour with hip hop buddy, Jay Z, who spent this year dropping a massive album of his own, releasing it essentially for free for Samsung users, setting new precedents for modern content distribution. This was from a rapper that, about ten years ago, declared that he has “retired” from music. His protege, Kanye West, also released a major album, his second release after his self imposed hiatus after Swift-gate - this album taking a decidedly new tone.
Jay Z’s wife released a secret album after a few years without new material.
Daft Punk returned to the top of the pop charts with RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES, and Robin Thicke, longtime second fiddle to Justin Timberlake in the blue-eyed soul genre, finally scored a major crossover hit.
All of these artists made their bones in the pop music world during the late 90s. All of them, to varying degrees and reasoning, had departed from the music. Timberlake wanted to pursue acting. Jay Z wanted to pursue business. Beyonce had a baby. Robin Thicke never really left music, but struggled to find his niche with a few middling smooth R&B releases.
Kanye West had Swift-gate and Daft Punk’s career faltered in the tail end of the 2000s.
A combination of nostalgia for their past work and the excitement generated from new material from a familiar and trusted source served as a the secret sauce behind the tremendously successful 2013’s that Daft Punk and Timberlake enjoyed. Superstar status and arrogance made Beyonce’s and Jay Z’s efforts this year important.
I feel Thicke scored a hit largely because of our newly found appetite for pop-soul crooning, awoken by Timberlake in the winter and aided by his inability to craft a genuine summer dance jam.
And now we have 2014 and Pharrell, another respected member of the old guard - coincidentally, he played a major role in every one of those artist’s early careers. He produced hits for Jay Z and Beyonce and was the driving force behind both Thicke and Timberlake’s first major label releases. He worked closely with West and Daft Punk.
In 2013, it seemed like 2003 happened again in pop music. And in 2003, there was no better time for Pharrell to establish himself as a solo artist. The ball is in his court again.
Written by Justin J. Milliner