Pop music is inherently unsettling turf, and the ground is as shaky now as it’s ever been. Album sales dropped again in 2013, but, for the first time, so did digital sales, its market share steadily being gobbled up by streaming services that pay artists pennies in royalties. Commercially, slices of the pie are being handed out to fewer and fewer artists.
This grim landscape might help explain why many A-list legacy artists spent 2013 issuing implicit correctives. The year’s best-selling album was Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, in which a man who had been at the forefront of pop music for years stepped out of time and re-imagined himself as the Frank Sinatra of soul. Daft Punk, whose mid-decade Alive Tour essentially birthed EDM, returned with Random Access Memories a gloriously lavish tribute to funk and disco legends. Jay-Z, Timberlake’s partner in crime, insulated himself with old collaborators on Magna Carta… Holy Grail and dropped a lead single that interpolated “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And rap megastar Eminem stomped back in our lives with a Rick Rubin beat and a video tribute to the Beastie Boys.
Another man on the front lines of this battle was Pharrell Williams, though he probably wouldn’t think of himself this way. “Get Lucky,” his massive hit with Daft Punk, was a planned coronation that went off without a hitch, but “Blurred Lines” loomed even larger, a song written in less than hour with cult goofball Robin Thicke that accidentally became one of the biggest songs in decades. Pharrell’s career revival has bled into the first few months of 2014, with “Happy,” a song he wrote for last summer’s animated film Despicable Me 2, suddenly and without warning becoming the dominating song of the year.
All of that, in turn, has birthed G I R L, his second solo album and first since 2006. Random Access Memories, The 20/20 Experience and Magna Carta were statements, and if they didn’t change the ongoing pop conversation, they at least started a separate one. It is in that space where G I R L exists: an album of disco, soul and funk that now feels distinctly post-throwback. It is not, as those albums were, encumbered by the weight of history. G I R L is a short, 10-track twirl, bright, flirty and fun. The revolution is already over, and now it’s time for the party.
If Timberlake and Daft Punk made records for their legacies, Pharrell made one for — well, it’s right there in the damn title. G I R L is an album obsessed not with time, but with women, and, more specifically, compelling women to dance. It’s a timeless ethos that doesn’t shout, “Hey, this is timeless!” This is perhaps why G I R L may also feel a bit minor, even like a trifle. But this singular focus — one that has driven pop music from the jump — is why G I R L feels not like an oldies album dressed up in the clothes of contemporary pop, but instead like the perfect pop album for right now.
That is different, it should be made clear, from being a perfect album, because G I R L is far from that. In fact, its worst songs are the ones that try the hardest to impress, like the shut-in who repels his longtime crush by revealing he’s built a shrine to her in his bedroom. “Marilyn Monroe,” the lead track, sags with saccharine strings, a belabored melody and an absurd but still tired lyrical conceit: “Girl, you’re not Marilyn Monroe, Cleopatra or Joan of Arc — you’re better.” Similarly, “Lost Queen” is dippy and childish, with Pharrell singing an alien love story over chants and hums like a song for an animated cartoon adaptation of Avatar.
At its best, the album is far less moony-eyed. “Hunter,” which nonetheless is sure to give “Blurred Lines” haters unwanted flashbacks, launches immediately into an irresistible, spiky groove. The same goes for “Come Get It Bae,” the album’s collaboration with Miley Cyrus, which lays a tried-but-true sex-as-motorcycle metaphor over twitching funk riffs and handclaps. “Brand New,” a duet with Timberlake, is lovey-dovey done right, with the spurting horns of ’70s soul propelling Pharrell’s best vocal performance and the album’s most memorable lyric that isn’t about “Duck Dynasty”: “You got me feeling brand new/ Like the tag’s still on me.”
The album’s second half — “Lost Queen” aside – rides pleasingly mild tempos, with “Gust of Wind” making Random Access Memories‘ “Lose Yourself to Dance” feel like a mere sketch, and “Know Who You Are” and “It Girl” recalling the patented strum-and-shake of classic Neptunes productions, the former albeit with reggae flourishes. The album ends not with a sweeping gesture, but with an unfussy jam that slowly pulls everyone off the dance floor.
And that’s it. G I R L ends quickly, and on its own terms. Pharrell has shifted culture before, but his solo album is just a moment in time. He isn’t leading anyone forward with it, and he isn’t following anyone either. That makes G I R L, in its low stakes and disinterest in grand statements, oddly refreshing.