When an artist pushes the release of his record back and back and back again, the implicit pre-verdict is that it’s probably a steaming pile of monkey poop, or else it would have been natural and organic and expeditious and out already. Constant, publicized delays have the same net effect as a studio failing to pre-screen a film for critics: Just hold your nose, put the damn thing out and be done with it. (Two words: Chinese F*#!ing Democracy, and frankly I’m not holding my breath about OutKast either).
Take Skateboard P. Pharrell Williams’ solo debut, originally scheduled for release in 1948, has been subject to more delays than the year’s first snowstorm night at O’Hare; as recently as last week the diminutive Neptune told Billboard of the street-date shuffle: “I was being super artistic, and I wasn’t listening to anybody. I really didn’t give Interscope a chance to catch up with me in terms of promotion.”
OK, fine. Or, what might have happened is that Pharrell was given more money than God and a blank calendar, and spent his sweet time coming up with what proves to be the aural equivalent of one of those giant-budget explosionpaloozas by, say, Michael Bay. In one sense, In My Mind quite literally represents the alignment of some of the best hip-hop talent money can buy (Gwen! Jay-Z! Kanye! Production by Pharrell Williams!). In another, more accurate sense, it’s unfocused, overwrought and ultimately kind of boring.
That first issue is the most pressing one. Among the myriad problems of “In My Mind” is Pharrell’s fairly evident identity crisis. Putting aside the fact that he’s taken to billing himself for some reason as Skateboard P, who no doubt shares a homeroom table with Chris Gaines, Pharrell has in the past few years endeavored to pitch himself as an average schmoe, a N*E*R*D, a guy just like you n’ golly gosh me — he goes far enough to include in the tray art a pint-size pixilated version of himself reporting: “Wealth is of the heart and mind, not of the pocket.” His track record, of course, makes such a proclamation fairly hilarious; it’s not like one regularly works with Snoop Dogg to explore the troubled complexity of the human condition. Besides, the strict parameters of the brand of hip-hop that Pharrell has invested himself in — that would be the blingy, club-worthy, look-at-me kind — demands he at least spend part of his time reporting how cool he is, while also contributing tracks like the go-get-’em-tiger anthem “You Can Do It Too”. So, what you’ve got is the nerd who sits with the football players at the lunch table trying to convince his RPG buddies and the ladies he’s still down with them too.
That’s a small taste of the problems with Pharrell’s Mind. The rest are that it’s in desperate need of connecting tissue and beset by the sense that Pharrell’s driving all over the road while twiddling with the stereo. Pharrell understandably wants to pack this proper debut with as many of the myriad ideas he’s come up with in the past few years while working on tracks with every rapper on the planet. But he quickly falls into the solo-debut beartrap of trying to jam as many styles, ideas, thoughts, and lunges for artistic invulnerability as possible; he tries to be the walking connection between man and mixtape. Yes, he can do hip-hop and yes, he can take a swing at R&B — we know this. We want him to do it well, do it better than he’s done it before, as opposed to shovel large helpings of it down our throats.
There are a few cases where he does do it better than before. “Raspy Shit” bangs perfectly along on a great effect and a riff on that line from “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and stands among his best beats. “Show You How to Hustle,” which is “presented” by Skateboard P for reasons that will never cease to befuddle me, is a similar hip-hop call-to-arms that illustrated Pharrell’s ability to balance inventiveness with banging beats, and how much better he is when he’s not overthinking it. There’s a strong diversity to them, too — some disco, some ’70s horns, some minimalist bang — that’s all part of that bring-the-house vibe that permeates the whole thing.
But as a lyricist, Pharrell is a quite a producer. Skateboard has cleaned out the address book for his cameos — Jay-Z shows up, as do Nelly, Snoop, Kanye, Slim Thug and, er Jamie Cullum — but each has the unfortunate effect of throwing a spotlight on their host’s shortcomings (especially Kanye, who in the otherwise forgettable “Number One” drops this gem: “Now we fresh as a prince while they’re Jazzy Jeff.”). As for his detours into synthetic loverman R&B — people, this man cannot sing! “Angel” proves a featherweight enough bedroom snoozer to not really register; “Young Girl”, the track with Jay-Z, piles cliché upon cliché, and “Take It Off” sounds truly like something you’d hear at center court at a mall. It’s not that they show a lack of expertise; it’s that they show a lack of hook, or melody, or catchy anything.
In My Mind ends up being an argument for setting a deadline and sticking with it, for walking out of the door at night, for leaving something on the cutting room floor. It’s an ambitious mess, but it’s a mess. And it boils quite simply down to a case of — someone should really cut this out and paste it in every hip-hop studio on the planet — less is more.