“You Won’t Believe What You’ll Do”- The Disingenuousness of Pharrell’s New Video

Before the excoriation and finger-wagging begins, I want to genuinely praise Pharrell Williams. Forget the legion of hits he’s produced in the last 20 years with partner Chad Hugo as part of the Neptunes. In the past year alone he’s lent his silky croon to colossal hits “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines,” unleashed a firebreathing cleanup verse in “Move That Dope,” manned the boards with Hans Zimmer for the Amazing Spider-Man 2 soundtrack and dominated the Billboard charts with the Oscar-nominated “Happy.” If the time from January 1, 2013 to December 31, 2014 was all we had to judge Pharrell on, his discography would still be unassailable.

What Pharrell should be criticized for is the bizarre “pro-woman” campaign that’s accompanied sophomore LP G I R L. Before the album had been released, Pharrell spoke to GQ about the “Women and girls, for the most part, (who) “have just been so loyal to me and supported me.”" The stylized album title then was Pharrell’s way of paying tribute to members of the opposite sex that had helped him out so much.  What Pharrell seemed to be forgetting in his tip of the Dudley Do Right hat was using the word “girl” infantilizes those heroic women who had helped him along the way. If you’re a man reading this, ignore the “would you call your mother this?” test and think about it this way: if a woman consistently referred to you as a “boy” wouldn’t it start to rankle you? I know it would me. The word “boy” connotes a doe-eyed naivety I’d like to think I’ve pushed past. Boys and girls are people who don’t know better; with minds that worry about things like lunch and the time until recess. When you insist on using either to describe someone who has reached adulthood, all you’re saying is their mind is set to childish.

If Pharrell’s facile campaign had stopped there, I wouldn’t be writing this article. Only when he released the video for the clattering funk of “Come Get It Bae” did I find myself compelled to write something. The song itself is undeniably catchy, with rallying handclaps that recall “Iko Iko” and strutting guitar Pharrell might’ve swept up from the floor of the “Get Lucky” sessions. I wish it was left there and we never had to see Pharrell’s grand cinematic vision for G I R L‘s third single. Instead what we as viewers are provided with is the zenith of Pharrell’s ludicrously mixed message. In red block lettering recalling “Blurred Lines,” the words “BEAUTY HAS NO EXPIRATION DATE” dominate the first frame of the video. By itself, that kind of hokey “Dove Real Beauty” message is blandly inoffensive. The problem is with who Pharrell trots out to “prove his point.” “None of them boys know the first thing about your fantasy,” he assures a parade of under-40 women from his director’s chair. The supposed lack of a black woman on G I R L‘s cover is “replaced” by the absence of a woman who has made it past her fourth decade on Earth.

Now I understand when you’re casting a video you go with the best, most qualified candidates. It is part of the reason I took offense to the controversy that swirled around the casting for Arcade Fire’s stunning “We Exist” video. In the clip, which premiered in late May, Amazing Spider-Man actor Andrew Garfield plays a young person struggling with gender identity while living in a small town. For an excruciating six minutes, Garfield’s character is leaving home in women’s clothes and getting into fights at the local watering hole. Ultimately Garfield’s unnamed character steps on-stage with Arcade Fire at Coachella and finds a “home.” When Against Me!’s lead singer Laura Jane Grace saw the video she took to Twitter “Dear @arcadefire, maybe when making a video for a song called ‘We Exist’ you should get an actual ‘Trans’ actor instead of Spider-Man?” Grace (formerly Thomas James Gabel) has been open about her own personal battles with gender dysphoria and was understandably upset about the exclusion. I don’t share her same frustration, a. because I’m not transgendered myself and b. I believe Garfield gave a real portrayal of an extremely disenfranchised minority. The women in “Come Get It Bae,” through no fault of their own, fail miserably in conveying the agelessness of beauty. There isn’t even an attempt made to capture beauty in its twilight years. No pieces of flab, no grey hairs, and zero wrinkles are shown as striking women nod in approval to the luridly repetitious “come get it bae.”

Not that I personally mind lurid come-ons in R&B. The Weeknd has staked an entire career on being a hedonistic lecher. In “High for This” he’s coaxing a woman into popping ecstasy to have better sex. “Enemy” has him doing his horrifying best to make a lover into a rival. Elsewhere in the Indie R&B circuit, Miguel begged “tell me that the p**** is mine,” in “P**** is Mine,” and came away with one of 2012′s most beautifully desperate songs. The difference between those two and Pharrell is they weren’t trying to mask their material as The Second Sex. They understood misogyny was under-girding their material, because men can be misogynistic. They know they don’t deserve applause for telling a sad truth and they’re not looking for any. Despite his assertion being a “feminist” is an impossible aspiration, Pharrell’s seeking credit for wearing the sheep’s clothing of one. The whole thing is remarkably disingenuous, telling women they can go their own way while ensuring what they need in their life is Skateboard P. “You won’t believe what you’ll do,” he insists in his feathery voice. What’s significantly harder to believe is that Pharrell thought any of this could be uplifting.

 

“Magna Carta…Holy Grail”- Jay-Z

For anyone that’s cared to listen, my only problem with the otherwise excellent Netflix exclusive House of Cards series is that the Kevin Spacey portrayed Francis J. Underwood’s quest for, and consolidation of power is far too easy. Dominoes tend to topple over, but Underwood’s opponents step-aside like well-trained matadors. It’s easy to root for the underdog and even the boss (if they’re amiable enough). But the one who breezes through everything (without ever hinting at all the work put in) could never be confused for the “everyman.” We cheer for Michael Jordan, but sympathize for the player riding the bench. I feel the same way when I listen to Magna Carta…Holy Grail.

Not to say that Jay-Z should go back to rapping from the perspective of the scrappy hustler, “back to the wall ashy knuckles,” that spun golden yards of the crack game on Reasonable Doubt. It’s a ridiculous request and were Jay to readopt that persona it would be as roundly dismissed as Rick Ross following the outing of his false “gangsterism.” That’s not where Jay-Z is in his career; he’s signing Kevin Durant to his new sports agency, going all in on what Bomani Jones pointedly called “the greatest cell phone promotion ever,” and vacationing in Cuba. He’s got infinite album budgets and a Rolodex of five-star producers that would make entire labels blush. Wealth talk in hip-hop has never been what’s driven people away, Big Bank Hank on “Rapper’s Delight” bragged of having a “Lincoln Continental and a sunroof Cadillac” (oh how the times have changed). Jay-Z’s longing for a “Picasso in his casa,” on the booming “Picasso Baby” is an extension of a material longing that only years of struggle could create. But the hunger was satiated somewhere between the turkey bacon for breakfast and the bottles of champagne for a nightcap.

Jay’s hunger has always been at its greatest when he’s had something to play off of. Watch the Throne was cut from the same fine cloth he’s now stitched in every time he leaves the crib, but he had Kanye West around to light the proverbial fire under his ass. Excepting the Murder’s Row production list, The Black Album succeeded so wildly because Jay was rapping on the door of retirement. Jay only crafted the all-time diss track “Takeover” for The Blueprint because vocal critics like Nas, Prodigy, and Jadakiss were closing in on all sides. The higher the flames under Jay-Z’s feet get, the higher he ascends. MCHG then is unmistakably frigid at points.

By all accounts Mr. & Mrs. Carter have a perfectly happy and healthy marriage, but you’d never know it from the lack of chemistry displayed on the tepid “Part II (On the Run).” The song, which rides a quasi-late-80s/early 90s R&B groove and hasn’t been officially confirmed as a sequel to the explosive “03 Bonnie & Clyde,” is a further down trending of what began on the cloying “Lift Off,” where the two last me. Surrounded by “No Church in the Wild,” and “N****s in Paris,” that track felt entirely unnecessary and coming in at nearly 6 minutes, so does “Part II (On the Run).

Even with all the namechecking of Basquiat paintings, Tom Ford clothing tags, and surprise trips to Marrakesh to smoke hashish, the most opulent thing about the album is its length. The run time of 59 minutes is deceptive; with late-album tracks like the Timbaland beach-house groove “La Familia,” contributing to the feeling that MCHG is much longer. Despite putting a Gonjasufi sample to provoking use on closer “Nickels & Dimes,” Hov flatly ignores the Neil Young advice that “it’s better to burn out than fade away.” Likewise, the suit and tie s*** of “Holy Grail” could’ve been hemmed to get it under 5 minutes.

That being said, there are clear highlights to be found on MCHG. Like an eyeball grabbing summer-blockbuster, “Holy Grail” is decadent and overblown in the best way. Justin Timberlake creates a grand scale from the get-go, howling over a piano “I still don’t know why I love you so much.” Jay continues the “papa paranoia” of Watch the Throne‘s “New Day,” surrounded by “haters in the papers, photo shoots with paparazzi,” to the point where a walk with his daughter becomes next to impossible. And despite what’s been said of the reworking of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the moment flies by so fast over the sprightly beat it’s hard to take stock of. “Oceans” is another moment of pure brilliance, returning to the imbalances between wealth and race that WTT delivered a treatise on. OF-crooner Frank Ocean conveys the mood, “this water drowned my family, this water mixed my blood, this water tells my story, this water knows it all,” making the confined quarters of a yacht sound like paradise when considering the slave ships that came before.

Elsewhere, the brash Timbaland beat of “Heaven” is one-step from launching into “Dream On,” and again employs Timberlake, this time to soulfully question just who makes it into heaven. Jay rips through round 1 on the song, effortlessly rolling off the 12 jewels of Islam (knowledge, wisdom, understanding, freedom, justice, equality, food, shelter, love, peace, and happiness) giving credence to the line “can’t believe this much skill in the human body.”

For any overabundance that “Nickels & Dimes” has, Jay-Z’s lyrical dexterity is on full-display here. He moves from talk of Mac-11′s to soft-drinks and Johnny Cash without batting an eye and later evokes Kubrick’s nightmarish Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick the dictionary definition of “perfectionist” is an idle auteur for Jay to compare himself to at this point in his career. Jay-Z albums now are meticulously crafted things, not a note out of place, everything from the guest-list to the packaging and promotion obsessively micromanaged. But the curtains are never pulled back for us to see all the sweat and sacrifice that goes into the finished product. The house of cards is set up, but never in danger of falling down.