Original airdate: 11/5/19
You may already know Pharrell’s name as a producer and songwriter, or you may know him as a singer who had a successful string of singles and guest appearances in the mid 2010s, or you may not know him at all, but Pharrell has had an incredibly successful career in the music industry that’s spanned over two decades. It’s safe to say he’s one of the most prolific and important hip-hop producers of all time, and he’s done his fair share of work in pop music too.
Pharrell started producing in the early 1990s, mostly for rap artists. Many of the songs he worked on were collaborations with his friend and fellow producer Chad Hugo, who he’d known since middle school. As a production duo, Pharrell and Chad Hugo worked under the name The Neptunes, which is a name that’s going to be showing up a lotin this writeup: a history of Pharrell’s discography is in large part a history of The Neptunes.
Britney Spears – I’m A Slave 4 U
One of Pharrell and Hugo’s first big breaks was in 2000, when The Neptunes wrote and produced – and Pharrell sung the chorus – for Jay-Z’s single “I Just Wanna Love U.” The song reached #11 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the US R&B/Hip Hop songs chart, and Britney Spears reportedly said that The Neptunes’ work on “Love U” is what piqued her interest in working with them.
Then, one year later, Britney released “I’m A Slave 4 U.” It’s one of the defining hits of her career (plus was responsible for one of her most iconic performances, the one with the snake at the VMAs). “Slave 4 U” was written and produced by The Neptunes, and it was their first major success in the pop music world. It’s a great starting point for exploring Pharrell (and, by extension, Chad Hugo)’s music, because it’s a great showcase of the Neptune’s signature sound: minimalist electronic hip-hop and funk, occasionally influenced by Middle Eastern and Asian music.
Nelly – Hot in Herre
The Neptunes isn’t the only group name Pharrell has worked under: he’s also been a part of the group N.E.R.D., which consists of him, Chad Hugo, and high school friend Shay Hayley. In 2002, N.E.R.D. put out their first album: as in most of his other work with Hugo and Hayley, Pharrell sings in addition to producing, while Hugo and Hayley stay behind the scenes as producers and instrumentalists. The album didn’t make much of a commercial splash, but it’s significant in that it was the group’s first release and did get some critical acclaim. Then, later in 2002, The Neptunes (i.e. just Pharrell and Hugo) wrote and produced “Hot in Here,” their first Hot 100 number one single.
Kelis – Milkshake
The Neptunes and Pharrell were up to a lot at the beginning of the 2000s: between 2001 and 2003, they worked with Usher, TLC, NSync, Busta Rhymes, Jay Z and more (their songs with Jay Z were especially successful). They had previously executive produced R&B/hip-hop artist Kelis’s first and second albums, and in 2003, they again worked with her on her third album—including “Milkshake,” which would go on to be Kelis’s biggest hit. It hit #3 on the Hot 100 and #41 on the year-end charts, but I think its lasting power has even outweighed those numerical peaks. Again, “Milkshake” has the signature Neptunes sound: hip-hop, electronic, and funk mixed together in a beat that still feels simple.
Fun fact: it’s rumored that this song was originally written for and offered to Britney Spears, but passed to Kelis after Britney turned it down.
Gwen Stefani – Hollaback Girl
Another very important song in Pharrell and The Neptunes’ discography was released in 2004: “Drop It Like It’s Hot” by Snoop Dogg featuring Pharrell. I didn’t play “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” partly because of time and partly because it felt a little too outside the usual fare of Pop Excellence, but I did feel obligated to mention it. It’s an iconic song – Billboard named it rap song of the decade – was another #1 for The Neptunes, and was Pharrell’s first number one as a featured artist. “Drop It Like It’s Hot” is one of the most well-known rap songs The Neptunes ever produced, and it follows their signature minimalist sound.
Some other Neptunes songs of note in the early 2000s: “Rock Your Body” and “Señorita” by Justin Timberlake, a few more Snoop Dogg singles, “Say Somethin” off Mariah Carey’s 2005 comeback album, “Hella Good” by No Doubt, and, a few years after the No Doubt collab, one of Gwen Stefani’s biggest solo singles. “Hollaback Girl” went #1 in the US and #2 on the 2005 year-end charts, and it’s another one of The Neptunes’ most iconic pop hits.
Madonna feat. Pharrell – Give It 2 Me
N.E.R.D. (Pharrell, Chad Hugo, and Shay Hayley) put out more music in the mid 2000s: the group’s second album was released in 2004. That same year, The Neptunes won Producer of the Year at the Grammys, along with Best Pop Vocal album for their work on Justin Timberlake’s debut album Justified. The Neptunes won two mores Grammys after 2004, one in 2006 and one in 2007. Pharrell also put out his first solo album, In My Mind, in 2006, but it didn’t gain a huge amount of critical or commercial success, especially compared to his second album years later.
In 2008, Pharrell also worked on several tracks off Madonna’s album Hard Candy. Now, Pharrell features on “Blurred Lines,” but I didn’t play “Blurred Lines” because it’s a gross, sleazy song and I prefer to respect women instead of, you know, objectifying them. But, in a vacuum, the song’s beat does kind of slap, so think of “Give It 2 Me” as a musical replacement for the sound of “Blurred Lines.”
Other mid to late 2000s Pharrell-produced songs of note include “Green Light” and “Kitty Kat” off Beyonce’s sophomore album, four songs off Shakira’s 2009 album She Wolf (which, like most Shakira albums, is very underrated. Pharrell really turns up the Middle Eastern musical influences on it), and “Why Should I Be Sad” off Britney Spears’ fan favorite 2007 album Blackout.
Kendrick Lamar – good kid
As The Neptunes, Chad Hugo and Pharrell started working together less frequently around the turn of the decade, doing more writing and producing work on their own. “Good Kid” by Kendrick Lamar, for example, is credited solely to Pharrell and not Hugo. It’s from Lamar’s first major label album – he and Pharrell also worked together on “Alright,” from Lamar’s second album, To Pimp a Butterfly – but this song was their first collaboration. It’s also kind of a title track: the album it comes from it called good kid, maad city, and this song represents half of the title phrase.
In terms of Pharrell’s group work, so to speak, N.E.R.D. put out their third album in 2008 and their fourth in 2010.Their fourth album, called Nothing, was the last full project the group would put out for many years, but don’t worry, they’ll reappear after a few more songs.
Pharrell’s four count supercut
Lots of producers have signatures scattered throughout their songs: Zedd uses clock ticking sounds, Jax Jones has a voice clip of someone saying “Whatcha gon’ do,” DJ Mustard has “Mustard on the beat,” humanoid formless blob of generic beats DJ Khaled has “Anotha one” – even singers like Charli XCX and Kim Petras have vocal tags. All this is just to say that Pharrell has one of the most iconic and organically integrated producer tags of all time: many of his songs begin with four beats of the instrumental skipping. It’s happened in some of the songs I’ve already listed, and it’ll happen in some of the ones coming up. But, for the most comprehensive and interesting introduction to this production technique, here’s a YouTube supercut put together by Genius that collects a bunch of Pharrell-produced song intros that have his four-count start.
Pharrell Williams – Happy
Pharrell had a great 2013. He’s often featured on the music he produces, going all the way back to the early 2000s, but 2013 saw him strike gold with two features that both went #1: “Blurred Lines” with Robin Thicke and TI, and “Get Lucky” with Daft Punk and Nile Rogers. Pharrell actually became the 12th artist in Billboard history to hold both the number 1 and 2 positions on the chart in June 2013. Then, in early 2014, Pharrell had one more massive hit: the most successful solo song of his career, “Happy” was #1 for ten weeks and was the best selling song of the year in the US.
This song was undoubtedly the catalyst for Pharrell (and his label) to start working on GIRL, his first solo album in eight years. GIRL leaned more into his funk and poppy sound, and it performed decently. Of course it didn’t meet the impossible commercial standards set by “Happy,” but it was pretty well reviewed by critics and kept Pharrell’s name in the mainstream for a little longer.
Beyoncé – Superpower ft. Frank Ocean
“Superpower” is musically the polar opposite of “Happy”: it’s a slow R&B ballad, written and produced by Pharrell, from Beyonce’s 2013 self-titled album. It also has his signature four count start, though in this case it’s more like a six-count.
Besides “Superpower,” Pharrell also worked on Beyoncé ‘s “Blow,” including featuring on a remix of it. He’s also worked with Frank Ocean a few other times, producing “Sweet Life” and “Golden Girl” on Ocean’s debut studio album and “Pink + White” on his sophomore album.
Ed Sheeran – Sing
Some other artists that Pharrell worked with in the mid 2010s include Miley Cyrus (“#GETITRIGHT” came so close to making this playlist!), Missy Elliott, Adam Lambert, Kylie Minogue, Jay Z, Alicia Keys, SZA, and Little Big Town (yes, the country group. He executive produced their 2016 album, along with Chad Hugo).
Pharrell also worked with Ed Sheeran (who got his own annotated playlist earlier this semester), cowriting and producing “Sing” as the lead single off Sheeran’s 2015 album X.
I’d heard “Sing” before, maybe even in 2014 when it initially came out, but it didn’t stick in my memory until I revisited it while making this playlist. Along with “Happy,” this single might be the most “pure pop” song here, though you can totally feel Pharrell’s hip hop influences in the percussion. It’s a fun, catchy song, but honestly, the thing I love most about it is the intro. How the guitar and percussion riffs around in the first few seconds and introduces you to the track’s sound, but then drops out so Sheeran’s low vocals can come in on their own – such catchy, great work by Pharrell.
N.E.R.D & Rihanna – Lemon
Pharrell has always been the more prolific member of The Neptunes, but Chad Hugo also worked on his fair share of projects in the 2010s: he wrote and produced several songs off Ashlee Simpson’s 2008 album, produced Kpop group Red Velvet’s debut single “Happiness,” worked with Malaysian R&B artist Yuna, and wrote “I Care” off Beyonce’s 2011 album.
And, in 2017, Pharrell, Hugo, and Shay Hayley got back together to release a new N.E.R.D. album, No One Ever Really Dies, for the first time in seven years. The album had a lot of high profile features, including Future, Kendrick Lamar, MIA, and Ed Sheeran, but I chose the album’s lead single, which has the biggest guest name of all – Rihanna. “Lemon” is, of course, the signature Neptunes sound, with its sparse production and funk influences. Pharrell is the guy rapping here, but, to be honest, Rihanna absolutely rules this track.
The Carters – Apeshit
“Apeshit,” from 2018, was cowritten and produced by Pharrell. It was the lead single from Beyonce and Jay Z’s surprise-drop collab album (does anyone remember that? No?), and it actually started its life as a Migos song —members Quavo and Offset are the ones doing the adlibs in the background, probably stuff kept from the original demo. This wasn’t the only time Pharrell’s worked with Migos: last year, he also produced “Stir Fry,” the lead single for their third album.
Pharrell has been producing hip hop for a long, long time, but “Apeshit” shows how well he can navigate and adapt to trends, because it very deftly fits itself into the current trap-centric landscape of rap.
Ariana Grande – R.E.M.
Now we’re going to take a turn back to mainstream pop. I want to bring up an important song that isn’t on this playlist: “Havana” by Camila Cabello, which Pharrell helped write. Cabello’s said that the song took five months to write and went through half a dozen different versions before Pharrell reached out to her. He came into the studio and apparently “cracked the code,” writing the verses in just a minute or two. She also asked him to record an example adlib track, and Cabello and her producer Frank Dukes ended up keeping Pharrell’s adlibs in the final version of the song. So if you listen to “Havana,” you can actually hear Pharrell doing the “woo!”s and “uh-huh”s in the background.
Now, from one main pop girl to another: one of Pharrell’s biggest projects in 2018 was his work on Ariana Grande’s fourth album, Sweetener. You can easily split Sweetener into two parts: one half songs produced by Max Martin or R&B producer Tommy Brown – all the smoother, more traditional bops and ballads – and the other half songs produced by Pharrell. Some people love Pharrell’s songs and some hate them, but his work is certainly worthy of inclusion here.
My personal opinion is that his Sweetener songs are a mixed bag: some fans hate “Blazed” (the song that features Pharrell’s vocals), but I really like it. Some hate “Borderline,” but I think it’s just average. Some hate “The Light Is Coming”… and I also hate “The Light Is Coming,” it has a terrible, messy sample that’s just an assault on my ears. “Get Well Soon,” “Sweetener,” and “Successful” are all decent to fine.
“R.E.M.,” however, is one of my favorite Sweetener cuts. It actually originated as a Beyoncé demo called “Wake Up” from 2013, her self-titled album era, but she never released it, and Pharrell eventually took the song to Grande instead. Unsurprisingly, the Beyoncé version is more soulful, while Grande’s is lighter and more innocent, but I do enjoy the final version: it’s a cute, happy song that marks one of Grande’s better efforts to transition into Pharrell’s distinctive R&B sound.
Pharrell won a Grammy this year for his work on Sweetener: counting the ones he received as part of The Neptunes, he’s won 13 Grammys since 2003. A second of those 13 Grammys also came this year, with his third win for Producer of the Year. The work Pharrell submitted that got him nominated for Producer included his work with The Carters, Migos, Grande, and this next artist.
Justin Timberlake – Supplies
So, uh, Justin Timberlake put out an album last year. It kind of flopped, even with a Super Bowl performance and it being Timberlake’s first album in five years, mostly because most people didn’t like it. I don’t have super strong opinions about the album, which is called Man of the Woods, but it is notable because Pharrell and Chad Hugo worked on it together as The Neptunes.
All the relevant discography pages on Wikipedia are incredibly comprehensive but not well organized, so it was very hard for me to figure out exactly how often Pharrell and Hugo worked together in the 2010s. However, Pharrell was certainly working on his own a significant number of tracks, and even if him and Hugo were occasionally collaborating in the years before, Man of the Woods still felt like a significant reunion. Partly because it was the first time they’d worked on a Timberlake album since 2002, and partly because it was such a big project for the duo – for example, The Neptunes worked together on one track on Daniel Caesar’s album earlier this year, but on Man of the Woods, they’re credited on 9 of the 16 tracks.
“Supplies” was Timberlake’s second single from the album. It was not well received, but you know what, I don’t really mind it. I do wish the lyrics were something, just, entirely different, but I think the melody is decent, especially the prechorus – seriously, a melody that catchy has no business being used as part of a zombie apocalypse-themed pickup line. Trap-pop isn’t the most unique genre mashup, but it is on trend, and the production seems well-executed to me, especially with the strings adding an unusual element to it. Also, Pharrell is the one doing the adlibs in the background.
Pharrell Williams is an incredibly important producer and songwriter who’s been creating hits in pop, R&B, and hip-hop for two decades. He’s capable of following trends, but is also willing to experiment with his and his close collaborators’ unique sound. He’s released music and done features under his own name, produced with Chad Hugo as part of The Neptunes, worked with Hugo and Shay Riley for N.E.R.D., and has produced and written for dozens of other artists. Pharrell’s most recent work has been on Solange’s When I Get Home, the soundtrack for the Lion King remake, and Beck’s Hyperspace, but there will be countless more releases, and I’m sure, commercial success and critical acclaim, in his future. Pharrell will be a prolific producer for a long time.