Auteurs Woody Allen and Spike Lee get grief from critics all the time for stepping out from behind their cameras and into their pics. In the music world, sonic auteurs — the producers — usually stay behind the control boards or add touches to tracks in obscurity.
Quincy Jones certainly never jumped into the “Billie Jean” video to light up the soundstage with Michael Jackson, and Brian Eno was not jamming in black-and-white with Bono during the “With or Without You” video.
But just watch a string of hit videos on MTV and it won’t be long before you see producer Pharrell Williams enter the frame. Now going by simply Pharrell, the hyphenate has rocketed from obscure ’90s beatmaster to a singular force that has changed the face of not just rap but R&B and dance pop.
Along the way, he’s become a valuable brand, not only producing tracks for acts from Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani to Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg, but singing their hooks with his familiar reedy falsetto and traipsing through all their glammed-out videos.
Oddly, as much as Pharrell has been heard and seen by millions on others’ projects, he’s never had a full-length solo project until now. But it remains to be seen whether the beatmaster behind Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” Kelis’ “Milkshake,” Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body” and Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” can repeat those acts’ success on his own Star Trak/Interscope release “In My Mind.”
Producing under the moniker the Neptunes with partner Chad Hugo, Pharrell emerged from Virginia Beach to ultimately surpass area cohort Timbaland and West Coast rap icon Dr. Dre as the premiere architect of hip-hop beats in Top 40 music.
Like Timbaland — who has revolutionarily combined disparate influences to form mesmerizing sonic collages, tinged with everything from Indian tablas to an infant cooing and gurgling — Pharrell is pretty much a huge music nerd underneath all the hip-hop posturing. (Appropriately, his rock-rap act, with Hugo and bandmate Shay, is called N.E.R.D.)
Such eclectic taste has allowed the artist to avoid being pigeonholed and to move freely across mainstream genres while introducing some incredibly arty, left-field twists.
He’s also been aided by his easy-on-the-eyes appearance: It might be harder to complain about Allen and Lee entering a camera frame next to all those hot-looking stars if they had Pharrell’s sleek, model looks and style.
Reflecting his bid for total domination, he’s also now designing a jewelry line for Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs.