Pharrell Williams isn’t a pop star. He’s a modern artist. Whether he’s using music, fashion, or design to express his distinctive style, his work always feels like an invention and looks like the future. The seven-time Grammy Award winner (and two-time “Producer of the Year”) has been part of the most indelible moments in pop culture over the past year, including performing Daft Punk’s Grammy Award-winning “Get Lucky” (which he co-wrote and sang on) with the robots, Stevie Wonder, and Nile Rodgers on the 2013 Grammy telecast in a Vivienne Westwood hat that immediately inspired its own Twitter account. Williams also racked up millions of YouTube views cavorting with Robin Thicke, T.I., and several gorgeous models in the racy video for Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” — a multi-week No. 1 smash that Williams co-wrote, produced, and sang on. And there was Williams in March, getting Oscar nominees Lupita Nyong’o and Amy Adams up on their feet dancing to his uplifting anthem “Happy” on the 2014 Academy Award show. The original song, written for the animated film Despicable Me 2 and the lead-off single from his current solo album G I R L, earned Williams an Academy Award nomination. “Happy” spent ten consecutive weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaked at No. 1 on iTunes in 103 markets, and inspired thousands of fan-created videos from around the world, a montage of which moved Williams to tears during a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Williams shows no signs of slowing down in the second half of 2014, with G I R L, a celebration of women’s power and sexuality that Billboard called “a relentlessly positive and unselfconsciously joyful tour de force,” and his fall “Dear Girl” European tour. He is also bringing his sharp eye for talent to his role as a coach on Season 7 of NBC’s ratings powerhouse The Voice. And in his spare time, Williams agreed to curate an exhibition of modern art at one of Paris’ premier galleries in May.

Williams has pursued cross-pollinating artistic interests for many years, with a prolific body of work that includes designing limited-edition jewelry and accessories for luxury goods brand Louis Vuitton, T-shirts for Japanese megabrand Uniqlo, and a forthcoming perfume collaboration with Comme des Garcons. He has also collaborated with French designers Domeau & Pérès on chair designs that were displayed in Paris and partnered with Tokyo-born artist Takashi Murakami and jewelry house Jacob & Co. to create a sculpture that was shown at Art Basel in Switzerland.

Each effort boasts an unmistakable and instantly recognizable style. Fellow innovators recognize this trait and it’s why they seek him out. As one half of The Neptunes with Chad Hugo, Williams has helped create such classics as Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give it 2 Me),” Britney Spears’ “I’m A Slave 4 U,” Justin Timberlake’s “Like I Love You,” Kelis’ “Milkshake,” Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” Ludacris’ “Money Maker,” and Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like it’s Hot.” He’s also re-inspired established vets like Madonna and The Rolling Stones. On his own or with the Neptunes, Williams has produced 35 Top 40 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, with 18 of those reaching the Top 10 and six going to No. 1. As an artist, he’s charted eight Top 40 singles on the Hot 100, with seven reaching the Top 10 and five going to No. 1.

For Williams, each endeavor is another platform for his unique creative expression, something he has been obsessed with ever since getting his start in music as a seventh grader at Old Donation Center, a school for young over-achievers located in Williams’s hometown of Virginia Beach, followed by playing in the school band at Princess Anne High School. A drummer and keyboardist, Williams was discovered performing with Chad Hugo at a high-school talent show by New Jack Swing architect Teddy Riley, who signed the pair as The Neptunes shortly after they graduated.

Williams’s musical style emerged publicly on a single verse on the classic Wreckx-N-Effect single “Rump Shaker.” Since then, he has been credited with a certain sound that’s marked a great leap forward for pop music at the end of the millennium. In 2010, Billboard selected Williams as its “Producer of the Decade,” and the industry has honored him with seven Grammy Awards and ASCAP’s prestigious Golden Note Award. He has also received a Grammy nomination for his work as a producer on Frank Ocean’s album, Channel Orange. But a futurist isn’t allowed to look back for too long, no matter how established they’ve become. Early in Williams’s career, Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine told Entertainment Weekly: “Pharrell has such a vision for every aspect of culture. He’s the modern kid: he lives rock, hip-hop, R&B, he can do it all.”

In many ways, Williams is still that modern kid, whether he’s on the cutting edge (like with the four albums he’s released with the alternative rock/hip-hop band N.E.R.D.) or at the height of the mainstream (he was a music supervisor for the 2011 Academy Awards). He is constantly gazing ahead and supporting newcomers with similar vision and drive. In 2012, Williams created i am OTHER, a multi-media creative collective that serves as an umbrella for all of his enterprises, including his Billionaire Boys Club & ICECREAM apparel companies, the music creation platform UJAM, bike company Brooklyn Machine Works, and a dedicated YouTube channel featuring original programming (Awkward Black Girl, Nardwuar the Human Serviette, and StereoTypes). The site’s manifesto — as Williams explains on his website www.iamOTHER.com — is to “celebrate the people who push society forward. The thinkers. The innovators. The outcasts” because “history has proven that it’s the rule breakers who have the power to change the world.”

In addition to his digital interests, the environmentally minded Williams is a partner in the NYC-based textile firm Bionic Yarn, which creates sustainable fabrics made from recycled plastic bottles for such brands as The Gap, Timberland, Cole Haan, Nike, and adidas. He is also the founder of the non-profit From One Hand To Another (FOHTA) — a resource center in Virginia Beach that provides kids in the community with alternative educational tools than those found in the school system. In March, Williams partnered with the United Nations Foundation to celebrate the International Day of Happiness, inspiring individuals all over the globe to demonstrate their unique “happy.”

Williams is one of our truly great contemporary artists. His touch, which relies on instinct and vision rather than any formal training or cynical formula, has changed the texture and color of popular culture.

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 [May 2014]

 

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