If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands — or else Pharrell Williams will come over and burn you with the feral pep of “Happy,” a pop hit surging with enough sunshine to cause melanoma.
It’s the first single from “G I R L,” a chipper new album that enjoyed an extraordinary promotional boost at Sunday’s Academy Awards, where “Happy” had earned a best original song nomination for anchoring the “Despicable Me 2” soundtrack.
And while Pharrell didn’t win the Oscar, he did give the telecast’s least-yucky musical performance. Wearing an oversize Mountie hat (his new trademark) and a sly grin (his old trademark), he sauntered down the aisles, inviting Lupita Nyong’o and Meryl Streep to shimmy along.
What’s that? You’d love to watch Steve Carell, Magic Johnson and Earl Sweatshirt dance to this song, too? Then check out the viral music video that elongates “Happy” into a continuous 24-hour loop. Also, good luck. After about 10 minutes, it feels like a demented metaphor for the song’s SARS-level catchiness. There is no escape.
And hasn’t Pharrell spent enough time in our heads in the past year? Last summer, we couldn’t escape the man cooing on Daft Punk’s neo-disco triumph “Get Lucky,” or Robin Thicke’s Marvin Gaye seance, “Blurred Lines.” Now, Pharrell’s back with his first solo album since 2006’s pretty-much-forgotten “In My Mind,” and his voice has never been more inescapable.
Or maybe it just seems that way. A decade ago, Pharrell was carpet-bombing American radio with a slew of innovative, era-defining pop singles that make his recent victories feel superficial. Alongside his production partner Chad Hugo in the Neptunes, he crafted icy rap anthems with Clipse, weird bubble-gum with Britney Spears, and just about every shape of pop song in between.
Ten years later, he’s still a brilliant studio alchemist, making real instruments sound fake and fake instruments sound real. As a melody man, he can steer Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto into jazzy corners. And as a rapper, he’s a boaster who, on a good day, could hang with the best of them. (Go ahead and look up “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” his 2004 hit with Snoop Dogg, and be delighted by its eternal freshness.)
But scurry any further down that YouTube nostalgia hole and “G I R L” will quickly start to feel less like Pharrell’s big moment and more like a rush job to capitalize on his unexpected resurgence.
Here, his taut production style feels airless and claustrophobic, and his duets — specifically, with Justin Timberlake on the Jackson 5-ish “Brand New” and with Alicia Keys over the rigid reggae of “Know Who You Are” — create only the tiniest sparks.
On his own, things get even more meh. “Hunter” rebuilds Diana Ross’s “Upside Down” with the spongy Neptunes synth-timbres of a decade ago, while Pharrell filters weak singing through lazy rhymes. “ ‘Duck Dynasty’ is cool and all,” he raps, “but they got nothing on a female’s call.” (He’s emulating Prince’s “You don’t have to watch ‘Dynasty’ ” line on “Kiss,” but he ends up sounding like Debbie Harry on “Rapture.”)
“Lost Queen” is another meandering song about meandering flirtation, filled with crisp percussion and friendly vocal melodies worthy of a cartoon soundtrack. And while the lyrics are PG-13, there’s enough X-rated blah-blah-blah elsewhere to make it clear that “G I R L” isn’t a children’s album by any stretch.
Not that Pharrell is trying to be the new Wiggles — but who is he trying to be? He’s asserted himself as a technician focused on his listeners’ pleasure, but we still don’t know him. His lyrics have never been more vapid and he’s never been more beloved. So what’s under the hat? A Fort Knox of personality and pathos? Or just a bunch of air?
“G I R L” provides an unsatisfying answer: Don’t worry, be happy. The hat stays on.