Pharrell Williams is seated in a large photo studio in Manhattan’s West Village surrounded by a gaggle of young women. In between bites of chicken, the notorious ladies’ man and leader of experimental avant-funk trio N.E.R.D says to his coterie, “Our new album is called Nothing, because what would we be without women? It doesn’t matter if we’re white, black, gay, straight, hickory, pinstripe, alien—women are essential to our existence.” Ponytails bob in emphatic agreement.
But N.E.R.D’s fourth album, the culmination of Williams’ work with bandmates Chad Hugo and Sheldon “Shay” Haley over the past two years, is about more than charming the fairer sex. At times, Nothing sounds like the Beatles after their LSD awakening, and at others like the Doors, all hypnotic vocals and fuzzy guitars. The song “It’s in the Air” is a meditation on hate that opens with a tirade courtesy of U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy wherein the congressman attacks media outlets for ignoring the war in Afghanistan. “In the past, we just wanted to be an interesting band,” says Williams, 37. “Now, we want to penetrate culture on a level that changes the way people think.” His choice of words seems telling.
Williams’ deliberate shift from playboy to politico is felt all over Nothing, which he approached with a new-found sensitivity to global affairs. “We looked at the war, we looked at commerce, we looked at finance, we looked at the environment,” he says. It’s heavy stuff for a band whose inaugural single was called “Lapdance.” But, he adds, smiling, “We also looked at other interesting things, like the new Ferrari. I like a flower as much as I like a Ferrari. If it’s under the sun, why do I have to choose just one?”
For Nothing, 27 initial tracks were whittled down to the dozen or so that appear on the mastered album. The ones that got cut weren’t “magical,” Hugo says. “They were all great songs,” adds Williams, “but we needed something that will make people go, ‘What the fuck was that?’ When you hear this music, you’re gonna bug out.” Given the underwhelming critical reception of N.E.R.D’s last couple offerings, the band had better hope to blow a few minds.
Their last album, Seeing Sounds, received a 4.6 rating out of 10 from influential music website Pitchfork. It was a slight improvement from their previous effort, 2004’s Fly or Die, which earned a mere 3.1. Anyone with a fixed-gear bike and a fade knows these aren’t good scores. In fact, they’re awful. “What’s Pitchfork?” asks Williams, with seeming sincerity. After Haley enlightens him, Williams says, “At the end of the day, criticism is distraction. Somebody else will read those reviews and be like, ‘Fuck them. They don’t know.’ We’re just lucky to be on their radar.”
To imagine Williams off anyone’s radar is difficult, especially for those of us raised on MTV. For 12 years, he helped reinvent the sound of R&B and hip-hop as part of the Neptunes, combining stripped-down, sexed-up funk with contagious pop hooks. Williams became notorious for appearing in the videos for the hits he helped create—there have been more than 120 of them since 2000—singing choruses in his trademark falsetto alongside Jay-Z, Madonna, and Justin Timberlake. (The tag “feat. Pharrell” became a staple of chart-topping songs throughout the aughts.)
Although Williams now lives in Miami, all three members of N.E.R.D still identify as poor childhood friends from Virginia Beach who unexpectedly made it big, or, as Haley puts it, “three lucky-ass dudes.” Williams says, “I never thought N.E.R.D was going to become this big thing. I didn’t think 10 years later we would be doing interviews and shit. If you’ve seen the type of poverty that I’ve seen, you never get used to this stuff.”
Humility from the guy who once rapped, “Her ass is a spaceship I want to ride”? Thankfully, this grown-up version of N.E.R.D hasn’t meant completely abandoning the pomp and swagger it takes to write a club banger. To wit, a video posted on the blog for Billionaire Boys Club, the name of Williams’ clothing label, shows Williams surveying a packed, sweaty crowd inside an afterparty for the Monaco Grand Prix. At least 30 bottles of Cristal are carried over to his table—a gift from a very wealthy friend—when the DJ announces the debut of Nothing’s first single, “Hot-n-Fun,” a bass-heavy come-on featuring Nelly Furtado, and one of the album’s few remnants of old-school N.E.R.D.
Back at the shoot, Williams stands shirtless in the middle of an empty room with tall, white walls. When someone pokes fun at his slight belly—his usually toned stomach lacks noticeable definition—he says, “One day, I’m too skinny. The next, I’m too fat. I can’t win.” He puts on a fur headpiece, and, as if to refute the notion that an older, less vain, more political Pharrell might have lost his edge, he yells, “I’m a soul brother now. All the white bitches, get naked! I repeat: all the W-H-I-T-E bitches, get naked!” For a minute, we think they might.
Photography by Billy Kidd. Styling by Christopher Campbell.