Pharrell Williams has always been ahead of his time.
Now, when I say that, it could mean that he’s ahead of his time in a lot of ways. He could be “hard to grasp” in his conception and execution of certain ideas, such as the way he envisioned his style and presentation. Back in the early aughts, he was considered a “weirdo,” with a goofball commitment to streetwear and anime that average hardcore hip-hop head wouldn’t come to understand until late in the decade. He could be “futuristic”; the sounds that he used as a member of production duo The Neptunes tended toward synthy and upbeat, at a time when the majority of hit hip-hop records tended to live in the midtempo range, using samples of soul loops and ’80s pop smashes to build their sonic landscapes.
But really when I say that Pharrell Williams was always ahead of his time, I’m talking about an observation I made to myself recently: nearly every hip-hop album released in 2017 reminds me in some way of Williams’ oft-maligned In My Mind. You can hear the DNA of that album all through the diverse releases of the last 12 months, from the obvious comparison of Tyler The Creator’s Flower Boy to more overlooked fare like Amine’s Good For You. Going back and relistening to In My Mind, I was struck by how fresh it sounds, at least for the first 30 minutes or so, like it could have come out only last Friday and fit in perfectly alongside the year’s most potent and colorful hip-hop hits.
That isn’t to say that Pharrell is the only influence, but over a decade later, his solo debut’s sounds and concepts permeate the hip-hop world.
It isn’t just the fact that Pharrell was both singing and rapping two years before 808s And Heartbreak, the album largely credited with first inspiring Drake’s moody, melodic style, was released, though that’s a part of it. From More Life to DAMN. to Future/HNDRXX, even Vince Staples’ genre-bending Big Fish, sometimes-strained-but-always-honest vocalization has become a must-have for any rapper’s toolbox. Although sing-song delivery was a part of many prior MCs’ arsenals, including Ja Rule, 50 Cent, and Nelly, those rappers’ lyrical diction was largely simple and straightforward.
Meanwhile, Pharrell, who by In My Mind was a ten-year mic veteran thanks to his work with Teddy Riley and Surrounded By Idiots, his Tribe Called Quest-aping group project with fellow Virginians Timbaland and Magoo, brought both ferocity and complexity to his raps, proving that complex, intricate lyricism could stand alongside straight-up R&B with songs ranging from the braggadocios “How Does It Feel?” to the surprisingly raw “Our Father,” with the perfect yin-yang blend of both forming the album’s centerpiece, “That Girl,” with Snoop Dogg and Charlie Wilson.
However, it’s not just the combination of cerebral, dense rhymes with catchy, soul-filled choruses that filtered down through the years. In My Mind‘s clattering pianos, swaggering drum rolls, and sampled yelps form the sonic backbone of the front half of that album, and are immediately mirrored in the construction of many of this year’s strongest offerings.