An hour with music producer Pharrell Williams at Jungle City Studios, up above the High Line and a wide array of new construction, feels like a minor form of time travel: He can connect an mp3 player to the console, turn the monitors up to jaw-rattling volumes, and play you pop music from the near future. These are the tracks he’s written for (or co-written with) various singers, beats he’s made for various rappers, a selection of sounds he’s crafted that could become radio fodder over the coming months. When we meet, he’s making adjustments to “ATM Jam,” a track for Azealia Banks’s upcoming album, and there’s plenty more of his work to follow. A tough-as-nails Jennifer Hudson song with a Rick James feel. A not-dissimilar piece for Miley Cyrus. A cut for Mayer Hawthorne that would sound like seventies smooth-rock kings Steely Dan even if we hadn’t just been talking about how much Williams loves Steely Dan, and even if he didn’t lean over afterward and say, “Sounds like Steely Dan, right?” A record with resurgent Destiny’s Child singer Kelly Rowland. And my favorite, an astonishing number from Kylie Minogue, which Williams might take extra pride in, because he makes a point of playing it without announcing the artist, then asks me to guess who’s singing: “That’s Kylie Minogue!” This is just the music he can share; somewhere beyond it lies the music he can only hint at (like new work with Beyoncé), and the stuff he can’t even discuss yet (he recently tweeted a photo of himself in a studio with Jay-Z and Frank Ocean).
At 40 years old, Williams still has the lean, boyish air of a teenage skater, as though he could blend in with the kids in Union Square. But I’m guessing the metaphor he would choose to describe this listening experience would not be time travel; it would involve visiting a fashion house and browsing through next season’s clothes. He employs a whole lot of fashion analogies to explain what he does with music. They’re complex and thoughtful, featuring Mark McNairy, Rei Kawakubo, and different methods of setting Swarovski crystals, and they may be slightly informed by the marketing person who’s here to remind him to mention the tenth anniversary of his clothing line, Billionaire Boys Club—but the central thrust is that writing and producing songs for other artists is a lot like designing their clothes: “I think about the person, where they are in their life, what they’re going through. I think about what’s going to look good on their body. So I’ve got to put the right fabric, the right print, the right weight and feel. And then I’ve got to dress the window.” That Kylie Minogue song, for instance: Williams was inspired after Minogue, suddenly confronted by some other urgent matter, thought she’d be forced to cancel the recording sessions. So he built “The Winners,” a giddy perseverance anthem whose verses all begin, “I was going to cancel …”
He has many fresh designs forthcoming, which is not a state of affairs to take for granted. Ten years ago, it was a given: Back then, he and Chad Hugo, the team called the Neptunes, were the most successful and prolific production auteurs during an era when being a production auteur seemed like pop’s highest calling. Any given hour of songs on pop, hip-hop, or R&B radio was practically guaranteed to feature multiple examples of their work: hits by Justin Timberlake, Usher, T.I., Britney Spears, or No Doubt; massive, grandparents-dance-to-them-at-weddings smashes like Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” and Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot”; somewhat more rarefied favorites like Clipse’s “Grindin’ ” and Kelis’s “Milkshake.” It is difficult to overstate just how much the sound of American popular music, post-millennium, had to do with their desiccated funk—crisp, minimal, and pointillistic, heavy on blipping synths and Williams’s clattering drums, often forgoing bass lines in favor of yawning empty spaces.