If you hadn’t noticed, everything is still coming up Pharrell. His singles “Get Lucky” (with Daft Punk) and “Blurred Lines” (with Robin Thicke) were last year’s most inescapable songs. His hat game is now legendary. His tux game is impeccable. The 40-year-old producer, who’s been in the industry for nearly a quarter of a century, is suddenly the hottest thing in pop.
Williams’s latest accomplishment is seeing the single “Happy,” from his new album G I R L, reach the top of the Hot 100. From a purely stylistic standpoint this is something of a surprise. Nearly every recent pop song that’s achieved the kind demographic-smashing, across-the-board memetic popularity that “Happy” is currently experiencing—from Lorde’s “Royals” to Beyonce’s belatedly blown-up “Drunk In Love”—uses the radically stripped-down, bass-dependent blend of Rick Rubin-era hip-hop and contemporary trap music that’s defined much of the pop world for the past year; meanwhile “Happy” sounds like a deep cut off a late-70s/early-80s postdisco soul record. If the go-to sound of 2014 is cold, boomingly minimalist, and faintly aggressive, “Happy” is warm and gregarious and would probably give you a pretty decent back rub if you asked.
G I R L is an improvement over In My Mind, Williams’s 2006 debut solo album, which flopped heavily enough to initiate the brief semiretirement he indulged in before coming roaring back to the top of the pop A-list last year. Most of it works off the same template as “Happy”: affable, airy, finger-snapping soul that electronically emulates the smooth sounds of the soul music equivalent to yacht rock with a light sprinkling of 80s B-boy attitude. Williams’s flaw as a solo artist is that he generally needs someone else’s creative input in order to elevate a song from merely enjoyable to mind-blowing, but G I R L has a solidity that In My Mind fatally lacked, possibly because he made this one near the beginning of a hot creative streak rather than after a solid decade of nonstop work.
G I R L is a thoroughly lightweight album, but it’s already gaining an importance that the breezy music doesn’t immediately suggest. “Happy” is the first single credited primarily to a black artist to top the Hot 100 in well over a year since Rihanna’s “Diamonds” did it at the end of 2012. It doesn’t seem like the type of song that could or should shoulder something as significant as the racial divide that’s sneakily conquered the pop charts in recent months. Like Pharrell himself, it’s far more vital to pop’s health than you might think.