Last year, if you were a mildly funky white guy looking for action on the charts, you couldn't recruit a better wingman than Pharrell Williams. For his assistance as a producer, singer, and delighted music-video presence on the velvety mega-smashes ''Blurred Lines'' and ''Get Lucky,'' Robin Thicke and Daft Punk could've forked over their first-borns and still owed him a brewskie. Better yet, Grammy voters named Pharrell Producer of the Year. Now, with his own chart-topping hit as its centerpiece, the lauded collaborator (and all-time great beatmaker) steps out on his own with a surprise late-winter lovefest engineered to last into the summer.
So, you ask: Is Pharrell whose forgotten first (and last) solo effort, 2006's In My Mind, leaned heavily on his rapper pals running the same, now-tired game that made unlikely superstars of Thicke and those French robots? Not entirely. First, there's that 2013 breakthrough of his own that is still paying dividends: ''Happy,'' a mood-elevating, handclaps-and-falsetto treasure on par with ''Hey Ya!'' or ''ABC,'' which he concocted for the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack and later respawned as a viral hit with a 24-hour-long multi-channel video. Nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars, the current No. 1 hit is recycled here as a sort of talisman, reminding Pharrell that love's not something only expressed in the back of a limo, and that he should dictate trends, not fall victim to them.
And yet, at the album's outset, he seems to be looking over his shoulder. G I R L kicks off with what could be an homage to the other blandly groovy juggernaut of last year, Timberlake's 20/20 Experience: thirty seconds of melodramatic strings (provided, as they are throughout, by movie-score maestro Hans Zimmer). These herald a slog of a song, ''Marilyn Monroe,'' about exactly the kind of ''helpless romantics'' who inspired Timberlake to abuse a metaphor in ''Pusher Love Girl.'' Justin himself joins Pharrell on the next song, ''Brand New,'' a manic track with Jackson 5 DNA, and Daft Punk get up in here, too, toting their vocoder on ''Gust of Wind.'' (If you’re wondering where Thicke’s at actually, why would you?)
Distinguishing himself from this crew, though, was really rather simple: He invited some females onboard. (After, I hope, a facepalm.) He sinks Miley Cyrus' refrain too low into the mix on ''Come Get It Bae,'' but loops her declaring ''hey!'' and ''hmph'' for a beat with a restless edge. On the reggaefied ''Know Who You Are,'' Alicia Keys cooly demands that every lady ''on earth'' join her in liberating their gender, and provides the supplest hook of anyone while she's at it. But it's on ''Freq,'' a ''hidden'' track at the end of ''Lost Queen,'' that Pharrell and JoJo, the too-scarce R&B singer, locate the true soul of the album: ''You gotta go inward/to experience the outer space/that was built for you,'' they repeat over a tapestry of hand drums, strings, and her sighs. Ultimately, G I R L testifies to a woman's worth. B
''Know Who You Are''