G I R L
After nearly 20 years as an in-demand producer working largely behind the scenes, 40-year-old R&B singer Pharrell Williams is now front and center on the cultural scene thanks to his smash No. 1 hit "Happy" (featured prominently on the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack), multiple Grammy nods earlier this year, oh, and his silly hat that Arby's recently ponied up $44,100 (in a charity auction) to acquire.
If all you know about Williams is his insanely catchy "Happy"—which is playing practically everywhere these days—and his kooky outsized headgear, you could easily think that his newly released album G I R L might be a fun spin.
Parts of it are.
The other parts? Well, let's just say they're a long way from the easygoing innocence of "Happy."
Still, we'll start with that cheerful track: "Happy" credits a woman with creating that constantly good feeling. "Sunshine, she's here," we hear, "You can take a break/ … Because I'm happy."
Williams is joined by Justin Timberlake on "Brand New," and that's the phrase they use to describe how a budding romance makes them feel. The song even credits God for bringing couples together: "You came along, and you made me strong/Like God said you would." "Gust of Wind" compares a woman to a celestial being ("You're from above"), in a relationship that prompts the singer to remember his heavenly Matchmaker ("You remind me there's someone up there").
Alicia Keys' contribution on "Know Who You Are" focuses on female empowerment: "I will do what I need 'til every woman on the earth is free." And in its tamer moments, Williams' impulse to treat his lady like royalty on "Lost Queen" are admirable. Elsewhere on that track, though, he admits, "Half of me is good, the other half is nasty."
So, on to the nastiness … which ends up enslaving this G I R L.
"Gush" begins with a sexually graphic lyric about a sex act and a woman's anatomy that's too explicit to print here. And Williams later chants, "You lit a fire inside of me/Gonna leave those panties in flames, girl/I'll light that a‑‑ on fire." All that despite the admission, "I don't know what's come over me/My momma didn't raise me that way." Indeed.
Perhaps more disturbingly bizarre is "Hunter," where Williams imagines himself bagging prey—women, of course—and then, apparently, mounting conquests on his wall as trophies for all to see. Even if interpreted metaphorically or hyperbolically, the implications of savage sexual violence here are hard to get around. The track also compares sexual prowess to martial arts and dives into the dark world of sexual infidelity and predation.
Miley Cyrus joins Williams on "Come Get It Bae," on which lyrics about riding a motorcycle stand in for sex. More carnal indulgence turns up on "Lost Queen," which gradually morphs from loving to lusting. Rough coitus dominates "It Girl" with, "When you bit my lip/And hold my hand and moan again, I'ma hold that a‑‑."
For all Alicia Keys' thoughts about female empowerment on "Know Who You Are," the song's overarching message is just to smoke some pot: "Bad day at work, crazy boss, crazy or worse/ … Inhale, exhale, in and out, like a sail/No, no, aw yes, smile honey, no stress/ … When your environment seems to get brighter/ … Can you imagine this started with a lighter?/You know it's good/ … And girl, don't let them tell you that you don't deserve to unwind/ … Isn't it sad? There's people in this world that don't know how this feels."
Profanities include single uses of the s-word, "h‑‑‑" and "d‑‑n," along with multiple inclusions of "a‑‑" (always in a leering sexual context).
Pharrell Williams was one of the guest contributors on Robin Thicke's controversial 2013 song and video "Blurred Lines," which hints at rape and flat-out degrades the fairer sex. In the wake of that negative publicity, Williams felt he needed to clarify his stance on women. And in a nutshell, he now says he really likes them. At a European press conference in February 2014, he proclaimed, "There's an imbalance in society, in my opinion, and it's going to change. A world where 75% of it is run by women—that's a different world. That's gonna happen, and I want to be on the right side of it when it does."
Is that why the aptly named and oddly spaced G I R L focuses on them from start to finish? Several songs express innocent romantic musings, but as almost always is the case in R&B, those musings quickly degenerates into objectifying sexual leering. "Gush," especially, veers into pornographic imagery. And it's hard to see how a jealous man describing his conquests as taxidermy on a wall really represents a pro-female worldview—even if we're supposed to laugh at it as a joke.
Ultimately, Williams' representation of women feels no less demeaning than the misogyny he and Thicke dished up last year. And that's not a very "Happy" thought at all.