It was Beyoncé who really nailed the appeal of Pharrell Williams. “He was the person who made it cool to just be you,” she said of the musician who has emerged from the macho and unforgiving world of hip-hop to charm the world. He is slightly built and always ready to express humility; his message has been that it’s all right to be different. Not for him the baggy jeans and oversize sports jersey uniform of the street – his style is personal, recently characterised by a bucket of a Vivienne Westwood hat and some sparkling sneakers that are his concession to bling.
He is the music producer who enjoys sculpture and astronomy, the rapper who isn’t ashamed to shed his tears on Oprah Winfrey’s show. After a year of one hit record after another, he has been anointed as American showbiz royalty. Yet he could easily be a child of Rio or Paris or Johannesburg. His open and sunny disposition, reflected in his music, allows him to cross cultures and borders. His tears on Oprah were his response to being shown a clip of home-made videos of fans from all parts of the world dancing and lip-synching to his song “Happy”, the biggest pop anthem of 2014.
When a group of young Iranians were arrested last week for posting their own “Happy” clip, Williams joined the ensuing debate on social media, describing the draconian development as “beyond sad”, while the Twitter hashtag #FreeHappyIranians trended worldwide. The episode was symbolic of the musician’s international status.
According to the BBC radio presenter Trevor Nelson, who has closely followed Williams’s career, he possesses a range of talents – as a producer, a songwriter, a musician, a rapper and a singer – that makes him “unique” in the world of modern music. “Some people would prefer him just to be a producer but he just looks like a pop star,” he said. “He looks like he should be on the cover rather than on the back of the album in the production credits.”
Nelson, a former A&R music industry talent spotter, said that Williams’s current fame, at the age of 41, was not the result of record industry manipulation. “There’s no A&R man who has made him. He is super-talented; he has a sweet falsetto voice. He’s a pretty good-looking guy and a bit of a style icon.” It’s surprising that such a modern man should also find himself at the centre of a sexism controversy, but a year after the release of the huge pop hit “Blurred Lines” (which he made with singer Robin Thicke and rapper T.I.) Williams is still dogged by the row surrounding the song’s lyrics.
“Blurred Lines”, the biggest-selling UK single of 2013, has been banned in 20 UK student unions over the sexual politics of the track, which includes the refrain “I know you want it”. Addressing the subject in an interview on Channel 4 this week, Williams denied the record was sexist. “Is it sexually suggestive when a car salesman says to a person who is trying to buy a car ‘I know you want it’? If a good woman can have sexual thoughts, is it wrong for a man to guess that a woman might want something?”
If this answer was less than convincing, Williams was smart enough to set out his progressive views on America’s need for a female president. “Historically this world has been run by a man, and what would a world be like if 75 per cent of world leaders and prime ministers were female? We do not know because we haven’t given it a shot. We’re too busy telling them what they can or can’t do with their bodies.”
He has named his second album G I R L because he considers it a “love letter” to the women who have influenced his life. When he recently created his own furniture line – in a project with French art dealer Emmanuel Perrotin – it included a chair with four legs configured to suggest a man and woman having sex. Williams’s demure explanation was that “it’s about being in love and I wanted to know what that was like”.
While he has the capacity for uttering lines that sound like he’s been rehearsing for a candlelit date, he has a reputation for authenticity. He was an original geek. In contrast to those rappers who concealed their middle-class pasts to boost their credentials with the street, he readily acknowledged his upbringing in the suburbs of Virginia Beach, Virginia, and his love for skateboarding.
Williams and his production partner Chad Hugo, whom he met at school, proudly acknowledged this identity by naming themselves N.E.R.D. The pair, initially mentored by local R&B star Teddy Riley, started out under the name the Neptunes and enjoyed credits on hits including “Rump Shaker” by Wreckx-N-Effect and the rap joint “Superthug” by N.O.R.E. They quickly won super-producer status and demand from pop artists including Britney Spears.
N.E.R.D.’s first release under their own name was a hybrid of rap, R&B and rock and aimed at Europe, where Williams’s eclecticism has always been readily accepted. He finally released his first solo album, In My Mind, in 2006 at the age of 33. Two years later he became a father, when his son Rocket was born to his long-time girlfriend Helen Lasichanh, whom he married last year.
His position in the US mainstream was confirmed by a recent appearance on Good Morning America and he has been unveiled as a coach on the US edition of TV talent show The Voice. For other musicians this might be damaging, but Max, the Capital Radio presenter, says that “Pharrell has lived solely by his own rules”. His legacy in encouraging a generation to embrace its individuality makes this nice guy almost flameproof. Especially so since Kanye West, who always hungered to be the world’s most influential rapper-producer-fashionista, entered Kim Kardashian’s reality circus.
As an entrepreneur who has built his Billionaire Boys Club clothing label and Ice Cream sneaker brand, Pharrell is surely aware of his commercial value as a brand ambassador. He will spend a large portion of the summer in the UK, where he is booked to appear at the Capital FM Summertime Ball, Wireless and T in the Park. “He’s not just a musical force – just look around at how many people will be wearing outsized hats this summer,” says the music publicist Alan Edwards. The “Happy” singer is the perfect festival fare, and Britain loves him.
But not just Britain. As he said to GQ magazine by way of explaining his faith: “Really, I’m a Universalist.”
A life in brief
Born: 5 April, 1973, in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Family: His father was Pharoah Williams, a handyman, his mother, Carolyn Williams, a teacher.
Education: Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach, where he met future Neptunes bandmate Chad Hugo. Northwestern University, dropping out after two years.
Career: Formed and played in Grammy-winning groups such as the Neptunes and N.E.R.D, and produced for artists including Gwen Stefani and Justin Timberlake.