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Back Tracks: Pharrell opens minds across music genres

Back Tracks is a weekly music column that studies the past, revisiting tunes that might be old but still resonate today.

Pharrell Williams attends a special screening of the movie Hidden Figures at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC on Dec. 14. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Saturday night was a late start to my New Year’s resolution: an oath to attend a ton of live shows. After living in Columbus for one year, I decided to finally take advantage of all the chances to indulge in live music.

Reviewing, photographing and experiencing shows kept me optimistic at low times last year, so I only wanted to up the dose in 2017. This past weekend I embarked on my quest at The Basement where I saw Maggie Rogers, a singer-songwriter on the cusp of greatness.

I first found out about Rogers because I trust Pharrell Williams’ ear. In June 2016, the music industry’s renaissance man made his way into Rogers’ New York University classroom, leading to an emotional nod of approval, with tears, of her breakthrough song “Alaska.”

I, like Pharrell, felt very moved by “Alaska.” As Rogers stated, he is just one set of ears, but they are a set of ears that are attached to one of the most outside-the-box minds in the entertainment industry. With all that Pharrell has contributed to 21st-century art, it is near impossible to touch on all of his influential offerings.

Here are a few examples of Pharrell’s wide lens of music diversity in producing, writing and performing.

“Lapdance” by N.E.R.D. (2001)

A common trait shared in the gene pool of Pharrell’s genre-jumping music is funk. If you are not already moving, his music instills a sense of urgency. That also means his music often takes chances with funky sonics, as evidenced by his earlier discography. Pharrell and multi-instrumentalist Chad Hugo, also known as The Neptunes, produced the track Pharrell wrote for N.E.R.D.

Oftentimes, rap music makes a failed, forced transition into rock music. The three-piece funk-rock group produced tunes that flaunted addictive guitar riffs, crisp live drums and mellow vocals. The juxtaposition of rap and rock music was a marriage N.E.R.D. perfected.

“Lapdance,” the intro song to N.E.R.D.’s debut album “In Search of…” is a perfect storm of the two genres. It comes at the listener a lot harder than the middle portions of the LP. There is no time to analyze, a testament to never knowing what direction a song with Pharrell’s touch will take.

“Grindin’” by Clipse (2002)

“In Search of…” also features guest verses from Virginia Beach brothers Pusha T and Malice, a duo known notoriously in the early 2000s as Clipse. The duo’s debut, “Lord Willin,’” also has Pharrell’s fingerprints. The album was produced entirely by The Neptunes.

After the first few crunchy, stripped down bars of Clipse’s hit “Grindin,’” Pharrell issues a fair warning to the future of rap: “The world is about to feel something that they’ve never felt before.” The beat of that particular song, after all, was a big turning point in spreading out the playing field of sounds rappers could experiment with.

It is the minimal, edgy anthem that began a path of destruction for Pharrell. For rappers with simple flows, the beat is a nightmare, which made it such a treat when Pusha T and Malice change up the time signature of their raps mid-verse.

“Drop It Like It’s Hot” by Snoop Dogg featuring Pharrell (2004)

Up to this point, Pharrell’s name was not being singled out; he loved working in groups and not hogging the spotlight. But when The Neptunes joined forces with none other than Snoop Dogg, for the song Pharrell wrote, and one of the most recognizable beat drops was born.

With Pharrell giving a shout-out to Snoop on the first verse of Snoop’s own song, it is just another instance of him fluidly slapping his influence on another style of music. The first two songs mentioned might not have sounded like Top 10 radio hits, but he made the crossover with Snoop Dogg quite smoothly.

In 2004, a survey revealed that The Neptunes accounted for 43 percent of the music heard on the radio in the United States at the close of 2003. Pharrell’s meteoric rise of the early 2000s will be dissected, but looking back it is easy to tell that paying attention to Pharrell can broaden one’s musical taste.

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