By Jeremy Essig
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Name a pop music A-lister, and he or she has either worked with Pharrell Williams or probably wants to. Gwen Stefani, Jay-Z, Britney Spears, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg and Madonna all fall into the first category. Need more proof?
But as he has transformed himself into one of the three or four most important figures in popular music as half of the production team the Neptunes — as well as a fashion designer, model and single-named icon — Williams has managed to keep an important part of his past with him, one which is about to resurface in a determinedly modest club tour.
The band N.E.R.D., which Williams formed several years ago with childhood friends Chad Hugo and Shae Haley, is more than just the side project for which it's often mistaken. It's more than merely the outlet for all the songs that don't fit the sleek template the Neptunes have created — a futuristic fusion of skeletal R&B and hip-hop that has launched what seems like a thousand hits, including Britney's "I'm a Slave 4 U," Nelly's "Hot in Herre," Justin Timberlake's "Rock Your Body" and Kelis' "Milkshake."
"It's simply the way we truly express ourselves," Williams says of N.E.R.D. "I'm pretty sure Chad and Shae feel the same way."
The fact that one of music's most ridiculously busy men is taking time to do this interview (from the New York offices of his label, Star Trak) says something about his commitment to the project. But as N.E.R.D. prepares to release a third album, N.3.R.D., which the group will support with a short club jaunt before joining Kanye West's "Glow in the Dark" tour this spring, Williams sounds more than just enthusiastic. He sounds, perhaps, relieved.
"If you get the right copy of the album," Williams says, "you'll hear me say at the beginning, It's been a while since we were able to express ourselves. That was really important."
Getting Williams to actually describe the sound of N.3.R.D., and how it compares with the mashup of R&B slink, Steely Dan smarts and alt-rock muscle of the band's first two albums, is a bit more problematic. The phrases Red Bull and a nice, refreshing drink of water come up more than once, as do the words energy and emotion.
"Well, there's no resemblance to anything we've done before. There's fingerprints of it," he begins. "But you can't compare it to anything else, and I'm not just saying that to sound hip. Energy and emotion were the two most important words in the making of this album. And if a track doesn't get you both, it's definitely one or the other.
"It's unfair to compare it to other stuff," Williams adds, "because most other records aren't made that way."
Williams reports that all of the album's tracks have been recorded, but a handful remain to be mixed. For now, the only reference point is the single "Everybody Nose." The song's jazzy, skittering hip-hop isn't far from the spare and playful Neptunes sound that Williams created with Hugo, which has dominated the charts for most of the past decade.
In the song, the narrator is about to explain what's keeping All the girls standing in the line for the bathroom locked out ("It's an observation," Williams says wryly. "Everybody knows what's going on in there"), but he's interrupted by a sudden swell of romantic R&B.
The midsong switch is just one example of Williams' ongoing effort to avoid falling into a rut. He explains that on N.E.R.D.'s second album, 2004's Fly or Die — on which he and Hugo learned to play their own instruments — the group's sound had become too consistent. "We just wanted to start changing things up again," he says of the new album.
Following the release of Fly or Die, Williams announced that N.E.R.D. had broken up, citing issues with the group's label at the time, Virgin, only to recant a week later. He next embarked on a solo career that received mixed reviews from critics and seemed to be something that Williams was never comfortable doing in the first place, as his sometimes tortured-sounding interviews from the time strongly suggested.
Even today, talking about the release of the 2006 solo debut, In My Mind, and its short, subsequent tour, Williams sounds apologetic.
"I hadn't thought it out fully," he says with a sigh. "I just hadn't realized until I got onstage how it was so ... [pause] funny, doing an R&B song and then a hip-hop song. It's one thing on other people's records, but ...," he says, trailing off.
"That In My Mind thing — it should have been a studio project. It should have been Return of the Clones II," he adds, referring to the 2003 collection The Neptunes Present...Clones, a sampler of acts on the Star Trak label.
At the moment, Williams sounds at ease just being one-third of N.E.R.D. and he says he looks forward to touring in support of the new album, which is due out "probably in late June." ("That's what we're told," he adds.) Yet with "Pharrell" a household name, one wonders whether it's been difficult for Williams to maintain the same relationship with his old Virginia Beach friends and bandmates.
"No, no, it hasn't," he insists. "Because those are my boys, one. And two, Chad and I still do a lot of stuff together."
As producers, though Williams and Hugo have kept the Neptunes brand name intact, they've tended to work apart more in recent years. Williams, for example, recently finished some songs for Madonna's upcoming album, Hard Candy, an assignment that put his material head-to-head with another Virginia Beach native who has reached the innermost circle of pop importance: Timbaland. If Williams seemed less than enamored of the spotlight during his solo career, he clearly relishes the chance to compete with his old friend (prefame, he and Timba were briefly in a band together) and perceived rival.
"His tracks [for Hard Candy] are crazy," Williams says with a laugh. "I couldn't fuck around. I had to come with it."
It's hard not to wonder, given how special N.E.R.D. seems to Williams right now, whether he's tempted to keep his best material in reserve for the band.
"It's more a gut feeling I have of what belongs where," he explains. "It's just like what you do — writing freelance. If you write something, not necessarily something you were given as an assignment, then based on the feel and the style and the energy of it, you'd know what publication it fits the best. And it's the same thing with music. Sometimes I do a lot of sitting at the keyboard waiting for ideas, but when they come, I usually know where they belong."