On “WTF (Where They From)”, which dropped yesterday, Missy Elliott re-announced herself as the unimpeachable queen of rap; a woman whose ear for great production and eye for visual design has been an influence of many but has never really been bettered. Alongside her, came Pharrell Williams, a man who is probably going to be remembered as the best beatmaker of his generation. Sounds like a banker right? And it is.
But then Pharrell - ageless beat-imp; man with a forehead as smooth as glass; purveyor of a taste in hats that may actually border on assault - drops his 'guest rap', and it is, well, absolutely terrible. I’m talking, split-your-jeans terrible. I’m talking trip-on-the-stairs-while-carrying-your-freshly-delivered-Dominos-pizza-into-the-house terrible. Achingly terrible. A terrible that hurts inside. It’s a lead weight dropped from a great height onto a Missy banger that only just about manages to crawl out of the wreckage.
Clearly, he’s been leading the kind of charmed life only afforded to successful men who never have to hear the words “No” or “Don’t say that” or “Maybe don’t rap on this one”, an absence that has become deafening now that his days as a rapper are flickering away like the dying battery light of an electric toothbrush. These are rap bars written so deep within the bubble, you can smell the Radox.
What happened to you, P? You used to be the man. You very nearly made Von Dutch a respectable brand. You tricked people into liking duplicitous sex case Robin Thicke for almost an entire minute. Yeah, you were never a great rapper, but you knew how to get in and get out undetected, dropping covert verses of meaningless fluff in a way that was self-serving, sure, but inoffensive and mostly infectious.
From the opening bar — “I come in this bitch like a liquid” — you just want to place a hand on Pharrell’s shoulder, his bones poking through a $900 visvim shirt with his own rhinestoned face on the chest like two broom-handles holding up some delicate cloth, and say “Come on, mate. Just leave it.” He barely made it past “Blurred Lines”, Marvin Gaye’s rightfully-pissed relatives, and the equally-rightly-pissed masses of people that took umbrage with such a flagrant, disco-hued take on sexual assault. You’d think he’d box clever.
His flow takes the worst of Chuck D and filters it through his own Pharrelian wail, eyes wide, frantically pleading for a ghostwriter to come and save him from himself. At one point he makes the claim “Lyrically I’m Optimus Prime” and you’re left with a few questions. Chief of these is if Optimus Prime is, according to the never-wrong Wikipedia, “consistently depicted as having strong moral character, excellent leadership, and sound decision-making skills, and possesses brilliant military tactics, powerful martial arts, and advanced alien weaponry” then why does Pharrell IMMEDIATELY follow it with “Look how I drive, look at my ride/When I go by, smoke in your eyes/So open your eyes, the joke’s on you guys”? Optimus Prime would never drop lines like that; a series of rhymes so Build-A-Rap basic that even an amateur with the merest shred of dignity would quickly delete it from his iPhone Notes.
At this point in time, you have to question what possessed Pharrell to continue to lend his raps to tracks of this calibre. His fingerprints are clearly all over the rich beat: minimal melody, thick bass-hits, skittering percussion, and — most obviously — his own voice shouting “Yeah!” and “Hey!” all over the thing. Pharrell is perfect in this mode — his voice is scratchy and jagged and soufflé delicate — but as soon as it comes to anything more than a strained, hypeman “Ow!” it all comes tumbling down.
If anyone has earned the right to sing and sing-rap on his own shit despite not being very good it’s him, but there is a time and there is a place. This is neither. We shouldn’t have to be talking about Pharrell stinking out the track. We should be celebrating a return for Missy Elliott — a 44-year-old woman who’s won five Grammys and sold over 30 million records making a comeback with a killer record and a brilliant video.
Maybe this is what should be expected from guest verses from artists who have been in the game for as long as Pharrell. An effort that comes across as perfunctory, sexless, routine, carried only on the unquestionable past reputation of its writer. After all, someone who shows up to work for the same job everyday for 40 years doesn’t quite do it with the same vigour anymore do they?
On Missy's "WTF (Where They From)", Pharrell is the grey haired cook in the pub kitchen, and while you’ve heard stories that he was a Michelin starred Soho food wizard back in the 80s, that doesn’t cover over the pale sausage and soggy chips you’re looking down on today. Bon appetit.
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