Pharrell: Best Rapper Ever? (Well, No)
Wow, I really hate this cover
The tape itself is a couple of weeks old now, but I didn't even listen to it for a while. I do that. Mixtapes are five bucks, total impulse buys, and that's why you'll get stuff like the Chopper from Da Band tape that's crunched up at the bottom of my bag collecting dust right now. I'll buy anything with DJ Drama's name on it, even the Little Brother thing, just because Southern mixtapes are so hard to find in New York that you have to grab what you can get (still haven't heard the Young Buck tape) and because Drama makes more consistently listenable tapes than anyone else working (Clinton Sparks and Green Lantern have moments; everyone else generally makes me feel like my soul's getting sucked out around the twenty-minute mark). But I decided a few years ago that I didn't like Pharrell anymore, and it's hard to shake that. I didn't always hate him. "Superthug" and "Got Your Money" and "Shake Ya Ass" were some of the first mp3s I downloaded as soon as I could get Napster to work; those early Neptunes tracks felt like someone had taken Timbaland's squelcy/clattery future-synth stuff and translated it into something even more universal. I liked them even more when I found out that Pharrell wore trucker-hats and ghostwrote "Rump Shaker" and did some tracks on the Jazzmatazz 3 album (loved that album for some reason). But then there was the N.E.R.D. album, which sucked at first and then got worse when they got Spymob on it. And then Pharrell fucked up his adorably horrible squeaky singing voice, once the voice on the radio more fun to sing along with than any other, by taking singing lessons and getting all melismatic. And then there was that scene in Fade to Black where Pharrell tells Jay that he knows exactly what he was doing with The Black Album and then plays him the shitty-ass "Allure" beat. And then there was The Black Album itself, its only weak moments the two Neptunes tracks, totally infected with the swooshy Vegas-jazz production style they'd fallen into and which they still sometimes still bother us with (see: T.I.'s "Goodlife"). And then there was "Drop It Like It's Hot," which I hated and everyone else loved. I was done with this guy.
Oh, and also, he decided he'd start rapping, and that wasn't helping anything. It was tenative at first: a couple of bars on the Clones compilation, a verse here and there. He even had a half-decent little solo track on the Clipse's Got It 4 Cheap 2 tape, the one where he calls himself "the peaceful Roll Royce-driving black John Lennon," which was pretty funny. Still, the idea of a Pharrell solo album was a little bit much, as was the news that he'd be doing a Drama tape. But now that I've actually listened to the tape a whole lot, I'm surpised at how much I like it. Dudes have been talking about it, of course, and anything I'll have to say will necessarily end up looking like biting, but the tape works in ways that I never would've imagined: it makes everything that I hate about the guy seem somehow fascinating.
Pharrell's lyrics are as single-minded in their focus as the Clipse lyrics on Got It 4 Cheap. But he's not talking about coke-dealing other than a few weird throwaway lines about how he sells coke music (sort of true). Instead, he's talking about conspicuous consumption almost exclusively: jewels, hanging out in Aspen, "walking slow like it's a Hype Williams video," "me and a few shorties / landing on the tarmac with Paris Hilton right before me." He hammers these notes so relentlessly that the stuff doesn't sound fun; it's Nick Sylvester's F. Scott Fitzgerald banality-of-wealth thing maybe (or maybe he just always sounds bored whatever's happening). He's not a good rapper, not as such, but he's found away to make his unimpressed chatter sound cold. In a way, it's like the new Streets album, the one where he talks about how it's too easy getting with regular girls and spending all his tour money on coke in Vegas or whatever. Or it's like Gordon Gecko, a picture of someone so caught up in the signifiers of wealth that he becomes sort of magnetically repulsive. Even when Pharrell is talking about the dead people he misses, it's still done through the prism of his absurd fame-flexing: telling Tookie Williams that he didn't know him but his friend Jamie Foxx did, talking about the kid on his skate team who got killed. And all this stuff is done over notoriously grimy beats, stuff like "Liquid Swords" and "Trap or Die," not his own luxuriant tracks, so the cognitive dissonance of the whole thing can just spin your head around if you let it. Like Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day" was a depressingly nihilistic and fascinating song because a good day for Ice Cube just meant a day when none of his friends got killed, but Pharrell uses the track to talk about his good day flying a private plane over the Swiss Alps (or whatever), and the subtext is ripped out so viscerally and blatantly that the resulting subtext vacuum kind of becomes a new subtext unto itself. Or he'll repurpose "The Message," rap's original struggle anthem, and use it to brag about his security guards. Also: he's still not a good rapper, and there are weird moments where you'll hear Drama yell something about "Skateboard P been paying a lot of dues" immediately after Pharrell giggles about his "Laffy Taffy chain" and immediately before he drops a mind-bendingly lame line like "the only mathematic / is drug traffi-ic." And still he manages to outshine T.I. protege Young Dro on that track, whose clumsy, aggro bark ("I am a Yugoslavian killer") feels gauche after all Pharrell's prim pimpery. Other guest rappers (T.I., Clipse, Fam'Lay) are at their absolute most predatory, and it feels like Pharrell is saying something (not sure what) by just being his unscary self while swimming with these sharks. And he's fascinated with actual gangsters ("Seen pictures of Jimmy Henchman when he was in jail / Fresh beeper, fresh chain, fresh sneaker detail / Like he could order anything from hits to sales / Like he in the Four Seasons ordering cocktails"), even playing at being one himself, but not interested in convincing anyone how hard he is. It's a whole new kind of self-mythologization, and it's hard to look away.
Of course, he also brags about his ugly-ass sneakers about five million times, but I'll take what I can get.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.