TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Pharrell Williams performed his hit song "Happy" at the Academy Awards Sunday, confirming his status as a mass audience pop star. The prolific producer and performer has just released a new album titled "G I R L," and rock critic Ken Tucker says most of the album is as happy and as sly as its big hit single.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PHARRELL WILLIAMS: (Singing) It might seem crazy what I'm about to say. Sunshine, she's here, you can take a break. I'm a hot air balloon that could go to space with the air, like I don't care, baby by the way because I'm happy. Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof. Come along if you feel like happiness is a truth. Clap along if you know what happiness is to you. Clap along if you feel like that's what you want to do.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Pharrell Williams, who frequently goes by just his first name, is the sort of pop star whom many people would like to think of as a friend. Emerging from hip-hop, he makes charming recordings that suggest a deep appreciation of pop, soul and R&B music extending at least as far back as the 1960s.
To hear Pharrell on his new album "G I R L," you'd think his world consisted of grooving on catchy beats and flirting with women. It's a lightweight image lent gravitas by his prolific work ethic and a shrewd deployment of those influences.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRAND NEW")
WILLIAMS: (Singing) My love. My love. A winner never quits, and a quitter never wins. I thought about what I wanted, and you weren't on my life. Remember where I was in a desert with no love, no cactuses just dust, and you swooped in from above. My love. So I just want to say, thank you for this day because it is so good. Good morning...
TUCKER: That's "Brand New," a song that dares you to think of it as brand new, as opposed to a canny recasting of riffs reminiscent of the Jackson 5. Pharrell is so confident in his ability to beguile you as producer, songwriter and singer that he all but buries the major guest star on that track, Justin Timberlake. Even when Pharrell dares to come on slightly predatory, as on the song "Hunter," about tracking a woman, it's all done in the mildest manner possible.
"Hunter" is also one of the high points of this album, with a rubber-band rhythm that stretches and snaps with a witty elasticity. His high voice can remind you of Smoky Robinson and Marvin Gaye, as can a few of his musical hooks, but his tone is also a pleasantly ghostly one, wafting in and out of a melody with a sinuousness that can be sly or sexy or serene.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WILLIAMS: (Singing) (Unintelligible).
TUCKER: Pharrell Williams began his career as half of the production duo called "The Neptunes," providing material for acts as various as Nelly, Clips and Jay-Z. He was glancingly involved in a little pop scandal last year as a producer of and video guest star in "Blurred Lines," Robin Thicke's appropriation of Marvin Gaye. Pharrell can even confer fame upon inanimate objects. The Vivienne Westwood-designed hat he wore to the Grammy Awards achieved such fame it was conscripted to help out again during the Oscar Awards.
On the new song "Come Get it Bae," he says I can do anything you like, and it barely registers as boasting.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME GET IT BAE")
WILLIAMS: (Singing) Hey man, I can do anything you like, I can do anything you need. And I got a better body than the magazines you read. (Unintelligible). And if they tried they cannot do it just like me. (Unintelligible). Come get it, bae. Come get it, bae.
TUCKER: Pharrell has come in for some criticism recently as being merely a glossy pop hit maker for lacking edge. I find that this sort of critique is really code for his declining to revel in irony, sarcasm or a bleak view of the world. And that is, in turn, why I find Pharrell Williams and particularly the Pharrell on display throughout "G I R L" an exhilarating performer. His big hat can barely contain his radiant braininess.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Pharrell's new album "G I R L."