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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Pharrell: the man with the Midas touch

Pharrell may be the most in-demand musician in the world right now - but it wasn't always this way for the Happy singer.
Pharrell Williams performs at the Zenith in Paris in October. Martin Bureau / AFP
Pharrell Williams performs at the Zenith in Paris in October. Martin Bureau / AFP

If you’ve spent any time in the vicinity of a radio in the past 12 months, chances are you’ll have found yourself nodding along to Pharrell Williams. Lending vocals to the airwave-jamming hat trick of earworms that is, lest you forgot, Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines and his own Happy, the little guy with the big hat performed a feat no one had achieved since The Beatles – scoring three UK number ones in less than a year.

But the most remarkable thing about the ascension is not this sudden success, nor the way he was able to repurpose familiar disco, funk and soul clichés into seemingly global euphoria – it is that it all came in his 40s. Sure, it is a widely reported – although rarely explained – anecdote that Pharrell’s production duo with Chad Hugo, The Neptunes, were behind 20 per cent of tunes played on British radio, and 43 per cent of songs in the United States, during August 2003. Working with everyone from JT to Jay Z, there was a time when any tune Pharrell touched seemed to turn into a hit – he even worked on the burger chain McDonald’s advertising jingle I’m Lovin’ It.

Pharrell’s secret is reportedly attributed to synaesthesia, a neurological condition that blends the senses, allowing him to “see” sounds. But, hold up – that was all a decade ago and, while far from ­work-shy, The Neptunes’ hit-rate nosedived about the time Pharrell went solo with In My Mind, a record he now writes off as having “no purpose” and laments as derivative. “That was just bragging,” he told GQ this year. “I wanted to be like Jay [Z]. I wanted to be like Puff [Daddy] ... I didn’t know what my path was.”

The rest of his career seemed to be lacking in direction, too. Clocking 13 Grammy nominations during a five-year run between 2003 and 2007, Pharrell was then conspicuously absent from the roll call until last year, when he secured a nod for working on Frank Ocean’s game-changing Channel Orange.

That is why Pharrell’s incredible 2013/14 hat trick, coming at the age of 41 and after such a slump, is all the more remarkable. Even he can’t have been expecting this year’s seven Grammy nominations and four wins – which included being named Producer of the Year during January’s ceremony.

Following the release in May of Happy – officially the most downloaded song to date in the UK – and the resulting worldwide hysteria of hundreds of YouTube video copies, who knows how many nominations Pharrell can look forward to next year. Written for the animated film Despicable Me 2, that uplifting ode forms the centrepiece of his second album G I R L (Pharrell insists on the spaces because “there’s so much between those letters”), and his first full solo tour. It kicked off in Manchester in September, so what can we expect when the Dear Girl Tour rolls into Abu Dhabi this weekend?

Having studied the set list, casual fans will be relieved to hear Get Lucky and Blurred Lines feature every night. Raiding his production back catalogue, other set regulars include Nelly’s Hot in Herre, Jay Z’s I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me), Snoop Dogg’s Drop It Like It’s Hot and Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl.

If Pharrell’s late-noughties decline and subsequent rebirth as the most omnipresent man in music have taught us anything, it’s that pop is a fickle world. And while we should be grateful for the chance to welcome him to the UAE at a time when he might be the most in-demand performer on the planet, wherever Pharrell’s career takes him next, there is no doubt these songs will be in demand for decades to come.

Pharrell performs at the Yasalam After-Race Concerts at du Arena on Yas Island on Saturday; entry is restricted to F1 race-day ticket holders

rgarratt@thenational.ae

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