A Disappointing Pharrell Nurses His Contradictions

No figure embodies the ambiguous last decade of popular music quite like Pharrell Williams. His work as the public face of the production duo the Neptunes helped make ecstatic, percussive minimalism the default radio and dance-floor standard. Out of inchoate raw materials—the third-wave gangster rap of Mystikal; the Scandinavian bubblegum of Justin Timberlake; the sunny post-grunge of No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani—Pharrell fashioned a challenging Neptunes sound that’s now the International style of pop.

But more than just a studio Svengali, Pharrell the man-boy himself is a fascinating study in the power and limits of contradiction. A hip-hop mogul, he also appropriates the adolescent accoutrements of white suburbia: His affected rap braggadocio comes coupled with a self-identification as “Lil’ Skateboard P.” In a remarkable instance of cultural convergence, the 2003 video for his one-off single “Frontin’” famously featured Pharrell and Jay-Z sipping alcohol from red plastic cups at a languid house party—just as art-country stalwarts Wilco were canonizing middle-American “disposable Dixie cup drinking.” Outwardly, hip-hop remains, as always, fixated on high and low—crack and Cristal, murder and Maybachs—but Pharrell has given it, and all of pop, a new heart, both bourgeois and avant-garde.

So even though Pharrell’s long-delayed solo album In My Mind is a disappointment, it’s neither unimportant nor ignoble. Unlike his work with funk side-project N.E.R.D., it takes a legitimate stab at the mainstream. Sadly, the enticing tensions suggested by Pharrell’s patchwork of cultural alliances—skateboarding and hustling; music-geek nerds and womanizing alpha males—don’t deepen over the course of a full-length LP; instead, they dissipate into an uncertain middle-of-the-road anonymity, as promising Pharrell beats are neutered by blandly undifferentiated Pharrell vocals.

In My Mind makes clear—sometimes by example, more often by contrast—that successful Neptunes songs work by tapping into the zeitgeist appeal of incongruous juxtaposition: Like his rival Timbaland, Pharrell intuitively recognized the dissonant appeal that a cold, electronic counterpoint could add to the essentially organic, operatic art form of rap. At its most persuasive, the regime of incongruity extends to subtext as well, and that’s where Pharrell’s technically narrow but chameleon-like vocal contributions have proven most fruitful. His elementary rapping on the “Boys” remix added just the slightest danger to an otherwise chaste Britney Spears cut. At the other extreme, his off-key and off-kilter falsetto hooks brought welcome vulnerability to Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and Jay-Z’s “Change Clothes.”

No surprise, then, that the few winning moments on In My Mind coincide with guest appearances by artists who are both easier to pin down than Pharrell and less intriguing. Ms. Stefani is featured on the album opener and leadoff single, “Can I Have It Like That?”, and though her vocals are limited to the chorus refrain “You got it like that,” the presence of the erstwhile ska princess somehow adds legitimacy—even sex appeal—to the song’s conflicted fanboy couplets. “She like the way my hands use her body for hand warmers,” Pharrell awkwardly boasts, “and all our car doors go up like Transformers.” The effect, like last year’s “Hollaback Girl,” is more charming than it has any right to be.

“Young Girl”—far and away the album’s best song—finds our hero in another familiar position: playing wingman to Jay-Z (besides Bill Clinton, perhaps America’s most irrepressible semi-retiree). The trademark falsetto, wrapped around a single, scanty string loop, propels “Young Girl” with an ominous, minor-key urgency. But the track’s canniness is all about building anticipation for Hova’s arrival (he joins in after two and a half minutes)—and in the icon’s presence, Pharrell’s genius as a producer and relative smallness as a performer stand in sharp relief.

On his own—as he is on about half of In My Mind’s 15 tracks—Pharrell seems self-conscious, unnecessarily and aimlessly discursive. At its nadir, the album becomes an unwitting argument for the final untenability of the ghetto/skate park, marginal black youth/marginal white youth synthesis suggested by the Neptunes at their peak. On “You Can Do It Too,” Pharrell dictates a slow-jam letter to his fans, telling them that they too can beat the odds. But the odds in this case don’t seem particularly long: He’s never been bushwhacked by drugs or poverty or violence. Pharrell tells us, “I was in marching band / I was a skateboarder / Jesus made wine / I couldn’t make water.”

Skateboard P halfheartedly tries to explain himself to the world—a trick he can’t yet pull off. It’s worth noting that Kanye West, another producer turned performer and a man inordinately skilled at talking about himself, shows up on “Number One,” In My Mind’s obligatory toast-our-own-success R&B concoction. The track is a mess—Mr. West’s insistent, nasal preening clashes awfully with the production’s cool austerity—but nonetheless instructive. After all, Mr. West has also been interpreted as a bourgeois prophet, perched knowingly between the dorm room and the street. Nothing if not shrewd, he quickly turned genuine cultural hybridity into a lucrative and ludicrous gimmick: His collegiate-Gothic take on age-old hip-hop tropes is narcissistic, over the top and has, to date, produced two irresistible solo albums.

Pharrell’s own ambiguities seem more authentically ambiguous; his unresolved contradictions regarding music, class and race (it’s especially jarring to hear him speak of “my niggas”) appear to be an honest function of the relentless shifting and blurring and fronting that is the way we live now. A deep, as yet unrefined understanding of the times makes him the perfect all-purpose collaborator—and, for the time being, a cipher as a soloist. But if Pharrell Williams ever figures out how to put what’s really in his mind into words and music, watch out.