Can we just talk about this for a second please?
Pharrell Williams is staging one of the most surprising comebacks to music I have seen since Mariah silenced all her naysayers in 2005 when she came back with her album ‘The Emancipation of Mimi’ and no one seems to be talking about it!
Back in the late 90s/early 00s music was dominated by Pop. You had Britney, N*Sync, The Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, Christina Aguilera and a whole host of others dominating the music scene. They made up what we now call ‘The TRL Generation’. But then things started changing, Pop was losing steam on the charts and the popular sound on the radio was becoming more urban, more sexual and less innocent- Hip Hop was taking over. And who were at the helm of this? The Neptunes.
A lot of people will remember a time when you could turn on your TV or Radio and a Neptunes produced song was being played. The Neptunes were producing music for all the big urban acts such as Usher, Mystikal and Nelly but what the Neptunes did that was so brilliant was they took acts from Pop and stripped them of all their sugary innocence and gave them all a much needed revamping.
The Neptunes helped rid Britney Spears of her innocent school girl act and embrace her female sexuality with ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’ and the remix to the Austin Powers track ‘Boys’. And Justin Timberlake would not have a career in music today if it wasn’t for The Neptunes successfully rebranding him as an Pop/Urban act with ‘Like I Love You’.
But that was only the beginning, soon after that The Neptunes, though more so Pharrell, were in demand by EVERYONE to produce a track for them from and their own album ‘ The Neptunes Presents…Clones’ helped propel the producers into bigger, global territory. I mean there is is something to be said about the fact that a survey taken in 2003 found that The Neptunes produced roughly 20% of all the music on the radio that year and 46% of the music on the radio in America.
The Neptunes single handedly changed the landscape of music from being primarily pop dominated to being the go to producers for HipHop acts wanting to crossover into the mainstream without compromising their sound and for Pop acts who wanted to explore more Urban sounds without it coming across as contrived or them ‘wanting to be black’.
At this Pharrell was becoming a star in his own right making his presence known on the music The Neptunes produced singing the hooks on tracks for Jay Z (Change Clothes/ Excuse Me Miss/ I Just Wanna Love You) and Snoop Dogg’s ‘Beautiful’ and the now classic ‘Drop It Like Its Hot’ (which was named by Billboard as the rap song of the decade in 2009, not bad eh?!). And now more than ever it became more important to get Pharrell on you song rather than getting The Neptunes on it.
In 2005 Pharrell did what everyone else expected him to do which was to release his own solo album titled ‘In My Mind’ and by this point I remember Pharrell being untouchable and being THE producer with the midas touch so expectations were high for his first solo effort. And this marked the beginning of Pharrell’s demise and his impact on music in pop culture.
I remember when this album came out, it was not well received by critics and dare I say it but a lot of the beats and hooks on this album sounded like they were recycled from The Neptunes’ earlier work with other artists. But I think its more important to realise and understand as the reason for Pharrell’s demise is that the year was 2005 and if you remember the ‘in’ sound at that time wasn’t The Neptunes, it was CRUNK.
Usher came back in 2004 with ‘Yeah!’, the Lil Jon/ Ludacris assisted crunk anthem which spent weeks upon weeks upon weeks at Number 1 here in the UK and lets not forget Ciara made her debut as the Princess of Crunk with ‘Goodies’.
But that was short lived and 2006 saw Timbaland team up with Justin Timberlake for his second solo album ‘Future Sex, Love Sounds’ which turned Timbaland into THE go to producer with Nelly Furtado, Ashlee Simpson, Madonna, Flo Rida, Pussycat Dolls, Omarion among others all vying for his magic. And where were The Neptunes? No where to be seen or heard. They had been replaced.
And Timbaland’s dominance on music continued with his protege Danja Hills producing Britney’s 5th studio album ‘Blackout’. However the album did feature contribution from The Neptunes in the form of ‘Why Should I Be Sad’ but by this point most of The Neptunes’ productions were becoming album tracks instead of singles. More recent examples of this include ‘Gotta Have It’ by Jay Z and Kanye West for their album ‘Watch The Throne’. A ridiculously brilliant song and fan favourite, just left as an album track.
While Timbaland and Danja Hills dominated every facet of the music industry, Pharrell faded out of the public eye keeping himself busy by producing the majority of the soundtrack for the first ‘Despicable Me’ movie and believe it or not The Neptunes released more albums which no one had heard of because of how culturally irrelevant they had become.
As with anything, Timbaland and Danja’s grip on popular music began to weaken with the growth of EDM taking precedent. Now I know I mention EDM a lot in this blog and how much I dislike it but you guys have no idea have much EDM changed the music industry! You had artists who owed their crossover appeal to The Neptunes suddenly jumping on the bandwagon of an entirely different genre which compromised the sound of everything they had recorded previously. Yes Usher and Nelly I AM LOOKING AT YOU!
Theres something to be said about the fact that in an era of EDM the most prolific HipHop to Pop crossover is Nicki Minaj’s ‘Starships’ when a decade ago we were getting classics like ‘Like I Love You’ and ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’. And by this point I was SCREAMING for Pharrell to come back.
EDM’s grip on the music industry seemed never ending with almost everyone jumping on the genre in order to get themselves a number 1 single until the summer of 2013 which saw Pharrell Williams produce and feature two of the biggest songs of the summer, Get Luck with Daft Punk and Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke.
I don’t know about you guys but I whole heartedly welcomed this after years of hearing the same tacky EDM beats on the radio it was incredible to see Pharrell Williams, one half of the production duo which changed the landscape of music in the early 00’s but then faded into obscurity by the end of the decade, come back to popular music with no warning and dominate radio, internet, TV and iTunes the way he did.
With Pharrell’s second solo album titled ‘Girl’ released this week and the lead single ‘Happy’ already selling over 1 million copies in the UK and reaching the number 1 spot THREE times its fair to say Mr Williams is back. And thank God for that!
I wouldn’t be surprised if Pharrell and Chad take back their titles as the go-to producers in music where the likes of Hit Boy, 40 Shebib, and Diplo have failed and bring back authentic, brilliantly crafted pop/hip hop infused music. And like I was saying last week about Nicki Minaj needing a different sound, perhaps latching onto Pharrell could do wonders for her.
Only time will really tell if Pharrell and Chad could recapture their former glory as The Neptunes and saturate the music industry with their brilliant production like they did in the early 00’s. But let Pharrell’s comeback show us that this man is an important asset to the music industry and his genius as a producer should never be pushed to the side again.