Catching fire in 1999 after a somewhat slow start in ’92 (during which he had a hand in creating a number of R&B/hip-hop classics — no biggie) Pharrell Williams, as one half of The Neptunes, has been at the top of the music game consistently ever since. But after being named by multiple media outlets as one of the greatest producers of the aughts, the last two years only saw a smattering of Williams highlights from the likes of Usher, The Throne, and Yuna.
But something was different in 2013 — there was a fire in Williams not seen since the last time he and partner Chad Hugo completely flipped their sound to confuse the legion of producers attempting to bite their style. A trashier publication would try to infer some connection to his impending summer nuptials to longtime girlfriend Helen Lasichanh, but we’re too kla$$y for that. All we know is he eased into the year with the stealth-attack “Nuclear” — a Destiny’s Child banger underrated for being too polite to actually bang. Still, with its lush, quiet-storm take on a classic ’70s funk track (that later became a late-’80s hip-hop classic), this cut reminded those who cared to listen, the quiet power the Houston trio could wield when not in full fempowerment drag.
That was it for subtlety for Skateboard P in 2013. Williams went on to produce tracks for some of the year’s most anticipated records, including Miley Cyrus‘ Bangerz and Pusha T‘s My Name Is My Name, even managing to resurrect Nelly for a brief period with the semi-hit “Get Like Me.” But it was the late-March release of longtime collaborator Robin Thicke‘s “Blurred Lines” that began the Williams tidal wave that would obliterate anyone in his path this year. With its sparse organ and percussion, “Blurred Lines” was the most polished song your nephew could’ve created entirely on his home Casio. It was also the most infectious, landing it (bolstered by a lighthearted, skin-baring pair of Diane Martel-directed videos,) at number one in 14 countries worldwide — including a 12-week stay atop the Billboard Hot 100. But besides being instantly catchy, it was significant due to Williams’ ability to somehow make Thicke sound less like longtime idol Marvin Gaye than he has in years, on a track so clearly inspired by Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up.” It was as if by finally acknowledging the legendary elephant in the room, Williams gave Thicke the freedom to become his own confident, witty, self-possessed artist.
Soon after, Williams completed his summer barbecue one-two punch with the April release of “Get Lucky,” the latest in a long history of collaborations with French electronic duo Daft Punk. Besides the incredible feat of creating a worldwide smash of a disco record in 2013 (with none other than Chic general Nile Rodgers guesting on bass), only a fraction the listeners in the 55 countries where it dominated the charts even noticed it was anything more than an EDM record. And that’s the genius of Pharrell Williams. From Madonna to The Clipse to Gwen Stefani, he never puts his artists in the position of sounding out of place on their own song. Where lesser producers are wont to make laughingstocks of the veteran artists who come to them for a sonic refresh (and make no mistake, Timbaland will always be a lesser producer than Pharrell), Williams intermingles his aural DNA with theirs to create utterly authentic soundscapes on which they can flex their sometimes-weathered muscles.
He followed up “Get Lucky” (and “Lose Yourself To Dance,” an absolutely stank jam session also on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories,) with a few worthwhile tracks on the solid Kelly Rowland album Talk A Good Game, as well as the cinematic, Frank Ocean-assisted “Oceans,” a highlight on Jay Z‘s uneven but much-hyped Magna Carta Holy Grail. But his contribution to an actual movie soundtrack would prove to be one of his two greatest creative achievements this year. Though the May release of “Happy” would go largely unnoticed as Thicke and Daft Punk battled for chart dominance, SBHQ was abuzz with this downright joyful contribution to the Despicable Me 2 movie that more than delivered on its name. With its punctuating organs, hand-claps and gospel-like breakdown, it was essentially a church-flavored energy drink committed to wax. Thankfully, with the November release of its 24-hour music video making headlines in the entertainment and tech media, the world soon caught the spirit, garnering Williams Best Original Song nominations from the Critics Choice Movie Awards and the Satellite Awards.
Then, as we thought we could basically put a fork in the musical year of 2013, came the surprise release of Beyoncé‘s self-titled fifth album, on which Williams gave the singer what may well be the greatest song she will ever record. On “Superpower,” built on a ghostly, maudlin subversion of a doo-wop harmony, the Destiny’s Child alum and Frank Ocean trade proclamations of devotion as the song builds to a soaring, heart-wrenching climax. It’s the kind of demented waltz you could imagine playing if 18th-century teen specters decided to go to prom after all (likely spun right after Prince‘s “Under the Cherry Moon”). That it was created by the same man who gave us “Happy” (and yes, “What rhymes with ‘hug me?'”) is a testament to the confounding genius that is Pharrell Williams.
So for expertly balancing the creative with the commercial, crafting the two lead contenders for Song of the Summer (and arguably the Year), giving us emotional bookends for the year in music, and almost making Nelly a thing again, nobody deserves SoulBounce Honors for 2013’s Producer of the Year more than Pharrell Williams. That should hold him until he inevitably picks up his GRAMMY in the same category in January. But we’d like to think we got there first.