A Grammy-winning producer, songwriter, fashion icon, and artist behind a staggering quantity of R&B, rap, and pop hits, Pharrell Williams not only helped change the face of pop beginning in the late ’90s: he also was one of the faces of pop music. As a charismatic star who often stole the show when producing and/or guesting on other artists’ hit singles, his presence was unfading, whether he was the one billed at the top or the one behind a beat.
To trace the beginning of his ascent, you have to go back to 1992, when Teddy Riley tapped him to write a verse for Wreckx-n-Effect’s “Rump Shaker.” Since the late ’90s, Williams and longtime friend Chad Hugo — known together as the Neptunes — began scoring songwriting and production assignments that slowly but steadily infiltrated mainstream music, whether it was via dance-pop (Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U”), hardcore rap (Clipse’s “Grindin'”), or contemporary R&B (Babyface’s “There She Goes”). Williams and Hugo were relatively obscure during the mid-’90s, doing spare work for the likes of SWV, Total, and Mase, but they would eventually develop a style that would become as recognizable and as mimicked as that of fellow Virginia Beach native Timbaland. (Prior to stardom, all three producers were in a band together called Surrounded by Idiots.) As the duo took on more work, Williams’ voice became increasingly familiar. He was now more likely to provide the chorus and the background vocals of the same song, in addition to appearing in the video. (Check out Jay-Z’s “Excuse Me Miss” and Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful” for two examples.) It wasn’t until the summer of 2003 that he truly stepped out on his own. He released his first solo single, “Frontin’.” Produced with Hugo and featuring a guest verse from Jay-Z, the song built anticipation for The Neptunes Present… Clones, a compilation of all-new tracks from artists produced by the duo. “Frontin'” was a ubiquitous summer hit and kept Williams’ momentum running up to the release of Hugo and Williams’ second funk/rock-oriented N.E.R.D. album, released in March 2004. Williams’ first solo album, In My Mind, survived a number of delays and was finally issued in July 2006. The set, produced by Williams alone, debuted at number three on the Billboard 200 chart.
Although Williams didn’t release another solo album for eight years, his name, as well as that of the Neptunes, continued to carry much weight. The remainder of the 2000s was filled with commercially successful collaborations with the likes of Clipse, Britney Spears, Jay-Z, Solange, and Madonna. There was a handful of Grammy nominations, as well as a surprising 2007 win for Ludacris’ “Money Maker” in the Best Rap Song category. N.E.R.D., who released their third album, Seeing Sounds, in 2008, remained an occasional diversion.
The following decade began with a steady stream of activity. Williams was responsible for much of the music for the animated comedy Despicable Me. Along with outside production and songwriting work, Williams and Hugo put together Nothing, the fourth N.E.R.D. album. During 2011 and 2012, Williams produced most of Gloria Estefan’s Miss Little Havana, dozens of cuts for R&B, rap, and pop artists, and tracks for two of the most praised albums of the early 2010s: Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. (Williams won a Grammy for his role in the latter.) The roll continued through 2013. “Blurred Lines,” a Hot 100 chart-topper from Robin Thicke, featured Williams as producer, co-songwriter, and featured artist. He co-wrote and fronted “Get Lucky” and “Lose Yourself to Dance,” two songs from Daft Punk’s number one Billboard 200 album Random Access Memories. The soundtrack for Despicable Me 2 contained several Williams songs, led by the worldwide smash hit “Happy,” for which he conceived a 24-hour music video. When the nominees for the 2014 Grammy Awards were announced, Williams’ name appeared in seven categories. “Get Lucky” won Record of the Year, Random Access Memories won Album of the Year, and, most notably, Williams won the award for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, for his work with a slew of artists including Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus, the Weeknd, Jay-Z, and Nelly. Williams signed to Columbia, home of Daft Punk, and released his second album, G I R L, in March 2014. It reached number two on the pop charts, by which time “Happy” had achieved yet more success, becoming one of the top-selling digital singles of all time with sales of more than five million. In addition, “Sing” by Ed Sheeran and “It’s on Again” by Alicia Keys featuring Kendrick Lamar would keep Williams on the pop charts. That same year, he also joined the television singing competition The Voice as one of the judges; in his second year on the show, he helped Sawyer Fredericks claim the top prize.
In 2015, Williams produced Snoop Dogg’s Bush, Kendrick Lamar’s hit anthem “Alright,” and Missy Elliot’s comeback single, “WTF (Where They From).” He also contributed to efforts by Frank Ocean, Alicia Keys, Kid Cudi, Gwen Stefani, and Post Malone. During this time — in addition to contributions to the SpongeBob Squarepants animated film sequel, the Hans Zimmer-helmed Amazing Spider-Man 2 soundtrack, and Paddington bear’s big screen debut — Williams once again teamed with Zimmer for 2016’s Golden Globe-nominated Hidden Figures score. The next year, Williams reunited with the Despicable Me team for the third installment in the series, which featured his song “There’s Something Special.” ~ Andy Kellman