Pharrell Williams may have a knack for generating groovy radio hits, but there’s a whole lot more to him than creating chart-topping tunes. The singer, producer, fashion designer, and philanthropist possesses formidable authenticity, humility (he’d rather consider himself a student than a master), and a belief that messages of love and beauty are paramount to success. His commitment to his values—across a decade-long career and dizzying stardom, no less—sets Pharrell apart from the rest. His invigorating spirit is perfectly captured in this special series of street style shots for our December issue. See Williams in confidently clashing prints and reimagined racing-inspired Comme des Garçons Homme Plus separates—proper reminders that there are all sorts of ways to stay true to your form.
“The truth will set you free,” a voice warns, “but first it will piss you off.” This might not sound like the opening salvo of a world-conquering Pharrell Williams record. But every era demands music that expresses its urgencies, and for Pharrell, who as a performer or producer has reeled off dizzying numbers of hits, this isn’t the time for infectious hooks.
He is not a politician. He avoids the soapbox. Love is still the message. “The only gun I shoot is love,” he tells me, giving that message its due context, on a cool autumn evening in Hollywood in the midst of the production push on albums for Justin Timberlake and Ariana Grande. Indeed, the 44-year-old singer–producer–fashion designer–philanthropist could recline deeply into a nirvana of nearly universal admiration—something like that blissed-out place imagined in “Happy,” his irresistible hit from 2013. But from today’s vantage point, “Happy” has an almost prelapsarian naïveté, and since then storm clouds have been massing in the genius’s brain. The new track he’s played me, called “Lemon,” comes from his forthcoming album with N.E.R.D, the funk-rock trio Pharrell cofounded nearly 20 years ago and to which he has returned periodically, mining the sound and the fury of his rough beginnings in the projects of Virginia Beach. (Pharrell’s childhood in those projects will also be the subject of Atlantis, his forthcoming movie musical.)
The new album marries punk, rap, and electro, and the rawness of its sound reflects the brutal realities of its content: Consider the song “Don’t Don’t Do It,” about Keith Scott, who was fatally shot in September 2016 by a police officer in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Imagine you come into this room right now, and there’s a pile of Legos in the shape of a house,” Pharrell says. “Then, in the middle of the song, all those same colored pieces rearrange and assemble and make . . . a rocket. That’s what this music is.”
Over the years Pharrell has looked to various self-effacing metaphors to describe what it is, exactly, that he does as a hitmaker and oracle of the Zeitgeist. He’s called himself a courtroom stenographer, a straw through which to suck up a bit of divine inspiration. But today he is a mirror.
“Have you ever looked at somebody’s Instagram, looked at all those selfies, and noticed that it’s the same side every time?” he asks. “My job as a producer is to reflect back to my artists the beauty of the other side.” He smiles, sphinxlike. “I’m here to identify the dark side of the moon for you and encourage you to see that that side is beautiful, too.”
Pharrell has been doing some soul-searching. For all the glamour of his pop persona, for all his indelible red-carpet moments and his fashion bona fides, lately life’s glittering surfaces have felt cold to the touch. “We’re drunk on aesthetics,” he says. “Everything is so beautiful these days, so polished, so sparkly. But what is beautiful? It’s an established standard that the people who have the power have agreed on. I want to be turned on by something. I want to be lit up by something, and not just by how something looks. What does it mean? How does it make me feel? That’s where I am right now.”
The 2016 presidential election was a wake-up call for Pharrell, a caustic lesson in the limitations of preaching happiness to a nation that wanted its suffering acknowledged. In January of this year, he and his wife, Helen Lasichanh, welcomed triplets, two boys and a girl. Now a father of four, shuttling his family between Los Angeles and Miami, Pharrell fears for his sons, especially, and when he contemplates a balm for the wounded world around him, there’s one word that comes to mind: inclusion. It was the message of a recent fashion campaign for his line with Adidas, which featured the Sudanese models Nyamuoch Girwath and Nykhor Paul. It’s the endpoint of his literacy-based charitable activities in Virginia Beach. It was the purpose of his recent benefit concert for Charlottesville, in the wake of white nationalist protests there.
“Black is beautiful, and right now, we are going through it,” he says. Inclusion is also the theme of this photo shoot, whose ensemble cast was curated by Pharrell himself. “I wanted to be surrounded by the culture, by all different walks of life of our culture, to get some light around me.”
As much as he is a cultural lodestar, Pharrell would rather see himself as a student than as a master. Like Andy Warhol before him, he is both fueling and gaining force from the universe of multifarious artists he attracts. And, like Warhol, he dares his audience to look underneath those polished surfaces, even if not everyone will. “I don’t want to preach to anybody,” he insists. “I just want to make my music, put out my sneakers, make everything that I can make. And I’ll hide some messages in there, if you look deep enough. That’s my job.”
In advance of N.E.R.D’s upcoming album, Pharrell opens up about how Kelis helped diversify his wardrobe and discusses his style influences, from lumberjacks to hip-hop icons like A Tribe Called Quest.