How Pharrell Williams Finally Made It to the Top
For the past year it has been impossible to escape the unshakeable beats and ageless looks of Pharrell Williams. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”—both insatiable hits crafted by Williams—positioned him as one of last year’s leading hitmakers (he became the 12th person in the history of Billboard’s charts to simultaneously hold the top two spots). And how can we forget the most talked about moment at this year’s Grammy Awards: Williams in his now-infamous Vivienne Westwood hat.
At 41—we can’t believe it either—the hitmaker has amassed some of the best credentials in the business. Beginning with Blackstreet in 1994 (he helped produce “Tonight’s the Night” on their self-titled album), Williams has written or produced for some of the biggest names in music: Britney Spears, Nelly, Jay Z, Kanye West, Shakira, Snoop Dog, Madonna, Miley Cyrus, Daft Punk, and Beyoncé, just to name a few.
Yet it wasn’t until the past year that he really became one of the most recognizable talents in international pop culture. But why? In a search for answers, we discovered just how much the artist has contributed to music, art, and fashion in his prolific 22-year career.
Born in Virginia Beach, Virginia, to a schoolteacher and a handyman, Williams first dipped his toe in the pool when Grammy-winning producer Teddy Riley set up a recording studio adjacent to Williams’ alma mater, Princess Anne High School, where the young drummer had entered his four-member R&B group, The Neptunes, into a talent show. Riley took notice and signed the group shortly after graduation.
Little happened for the group’s success, but Williams began writing lyrics, including Riley’s verse in Wreckx-N-Effect’s 1992 hit “Rump Shaker.” Eventually The Neptunes dwindled down to just Williams and his friend Chad Hugo, and the duo rebranded themselves as producers, scoring gigs for Blackstreet and N.O.R.E before cementing their talents by producing Kelis’ debut album, Kaleidoscope.
Their collaboration rewrote the rulebook of R&B. NME raved that “The ‘Tunes [were] redefining modern soul/R&B production, blending live musicianship (they play everything themselves) with stripped-down, deceptively simple beats and a skewed use of playground melodies and orchestration.” This was, after all, a time when heavy bass and kick drums dominated the mainstream R&B airwaves.
So it’s no surprise that the music industry’s biggest names began to recruit the team to put a fresh spin on their tracks. Without Williams and Hugo, singles such as Britney Spears’s “I’m a Slave 4 U,” Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” and Snoop Dog’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” may have never amounted to the iconic successes that they were. At one point in 2003, the duo were responsible for one-third of the Billboard 100 and 43 percent of songs on the airwaves in the United States. Williams and Hugo were on top of their game, snagging awards for Producer of the Year at the Source Awards (2002), Billboard Awards (2002), and the Grammys (2004).
But, as Billboard put it, their golden age “faded with the rise of rawer hip-hop sub-genres like crunk and snap.” The hits dried up. Williams focused on his debut solo album (In My Mind) while Hugo continued experimenting with N.E.R.D., an alt-rap group the two began in 2001. From 2006 to 2013, neither Williams nor The Neptunes had a single Top 40 hit.
However, their absence from the charts was a far cry from a trail of failed hits, remnants of creativity run dry. Instead, Williams began to broaden his reach. He kept collaborating with top-tier musicians, but also explored unfamiliar territory—composing the soundtrack for the blockbuster animated film Despicable Me, the intro for late-night comedy talk show Chelsea Lately and, along with Hans Zimmer, scores for the 84th Academy Awards.
His fashion labels Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream footwear continued to grow; a shop opened in New York City and an investment was made into Bionic Yarn textiles. He co-designed a series of jewelry and glasses for Louis Vuitton and Moncler as well as furniture for Emmanuel Perrotin and Domeau & Peres, while a sculpture he created with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami fetched $2 million at Art Basel in 2009. In 2011, he became creative director of KarmaloopTV, a position he still holds. All are overseen by i am OTHER —a media and philanthropic company Williams founded to encompass all of his projects.
Then, just as Williams had accepted his place on the sidelines, the name and face that faded from our memory came rushing back.
“By 2013, I had accepted my role as the… camouflage,” Williams said in an interview with W magazine. “I was the guy next to the guy, rather than the guy himself. All my formative years, I spent standing next to Jay [Z] or Justin [Timberlake] or all those kings. I’ve always learned from the masters, whether it’s in music or art or fashion. But in 2013, it was different: Suddenly, it was not about being the camo anymore.”
“Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky” arrived almost simultaneously early that year, becoming the inescapable songs of the summer, propelling the singer-producer to the forefront of entertainment.
While Williams’s song “Happy” was one of many he wrote for the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack released later that year, it had seen very little commercial success initially. So, in true Pharrell fashion, he created something new—the first 24-hour music video, cast with hundreds of individuals dancing to the song on repeat. The video, “24 Hours of Happy,” went viral, sparking thousands of fan-made renditions from around the world.
Weeks later, Williams, dressed in a red track jacket and a vintage Vivienne Westwood hat, appeared on stage to accept his first (of three) awards, looking as youthful as he did some 20 years prior. By the time he exited the stage, he had become another viral sensation—this time for his hat. “I was genuinely shocked by Grammy night,” Williams said. “I had been happy running this career marathon. I didn’t expect any medals. I was particularly amazed when I went backstage after winning the first Grammy and one of my managers told me that my hat now had its own Twitter account. During the show, a fan started tweeting as my hat.” Arby’s even joined in on the fun, too, asking for Williams to return their logo.
Everyone wanted a piece of Pharrell. He appeared on numerous magazine covers, signed endorsements with companies such as G-Star RAW, Uniqlo, and Adidas, and curated an A-list art show for the Galerie Perrotin in Paris.
The publicity couldn’t have been more perfect. G I R L, Williams’ second solo album, was released in March and featured the big names he has worked with for years: Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk, and Hans Zimmer. “G I R L is a simple, even slight record,” Rolling Stone magazine reviewed, “and that’s definitely meant as a compliment. Everyone in pop owes him a favor.” “Its all-ages, aisle-reaching attitude is ready for mass consumption,” according to Pitchfork. “And over the next year and maybe longer, you'll probably be hearing these easy-to-please tunes anywhere.”