The last decade made Pharrell Williams a popular figure in the public, in music charts and in fashion. The limelight could not get enough from the multi-talent in huge hats and colorful clothes when the massive success of soundtrack-single ‘Happy’ for the animated film ‘Despicable Me 2’ created a movement were countless tribute videos of that song and video made a global phenomenon in approximately 153 countries. But despite Pharrell’s stardom that reached high points from that moment on, he was actually very present in the music industry since the 90s, though often behind the scenes. When girl group SWV had a massive hit with the ‘Human Nature’ version of their song ‘Right Here’ in 1993, which charted at number 2 on the Billboard Charts, it also features Pharrell’s uncredited vocals when he chants in the background “S…The double…The U…The V!” which became a tour call for the group. As the song was produced by Teddy Riley, former Blackstreet member and famous producer for artists like Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown, he is also credited to establish Pharrell and his partner and childhood friend Chad Hugo into the business. Small steps helped both Pharrell and Chad into the hip-hop and R&B scene with Riley’s help, then later the two collided as production duo The Neptunes and found success with urban and funk-inspired productions in the 90s and the 2000s, with an endless résumé of hit productions while also founding their own label imprint Star Trak. Their 2001 single for Britney Spears, ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’, helped them to find further success into pop radio, and since then continued with hit after hit throughout the 2000s, like Nelly’s ‘Hot in Herre’, Snoop Dogg’s ‘Beautiful’ and ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’, Kelis’ ‘Milkshake’, Gwen Stefani’s ‘Hollaback Girl’, and created a fine line between pop and hip-hop, either with Jay-Z (‘Excuse Me Miss’), then again with Justin Timberlake (‘Rock Your Body’, ‘Señorita’). Though he later also solo-produced music for other artists, like Ariana Grande, for example, his achievement with Chad as a production duo was inducted into the 2020 class of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
In a whole, it’s an ongoing list of music that defined Pharrell’s talent and helped establish the sound of the late 90s throughout the 2000s. He was everywhere, and on his 30th birthday even made aware of radio statistics that almost half of the played music on American radio was produced by him. Not forgetting the records he put out with his band N.E.R.D. – an acronym for No-one Ever Really Dies – which includes him, Chad Hugo, and their high school friend Shay Haley. Started as a side project but finding a core base of success with their albums and singles (‘She Wants to Move’, ‘Lemon’ with Rihanna), the rock and hip-hop band was another milestone he established, and yet through all this also found the time to build up his fashion brands, Billionaire Boys Club and ICECREAM.
Winning 13 Grammy awards and nominated for two Academy Awards, Pharrell is by far not underrated by the public, although did not always get credit for a lot of solo singles he released, plus his rap or singing features in songs he did for other artists. Some were massive hits, some were more in the background. Nonetheless, here are the ten greatest singles he released as a solo performer, or as a feature. The listed tracks are in no specific order. (Note: Though his collaboration in Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ is worth to be on the list, it’s rather decided to conclude songs where he plays a part in vocals rather than solely background humming and/or production).
Number One (feat. Kanye West) (from In My Mind, 2006)
“You’re now listening to Skateboard P and the Louis Vuitton Don” – a classic introduction by Kanye West when he was still known for his ‘Late Registration’ LP and still relatively new in the mainstream business. In their collaborative single ‘Number One’, Pharrell acts out a conversation with a girl who feels neglected and confirming her to be the only one for him. Kanye supports the statement in his rap part during the bridge and is very much in the zone of the song and in the music video, too – where he lets loose and has fun, and therefore underlines the euphoric vibe of the track (“Yesterday I was half the man you see / Baby that’s because you the other half of me”). Furthermore, the synthesized effects help to create unique electronic keys, like ‘ping’ sounds, that remind of space movies from the 80s, or early video games from that same era.
Released as the third single from Pharrell’s debut album ‘In My Mind’, the track sadly was overlooked in the charts. Though the smooth R&B waves, playful sounds, and positive chemistry between him and Kanye should have deserved better. Just like in the hook where Pharrell exclaims the lyrics “Number One / Smash Hit / Off the Charts / Classic” and Kanye’s in-betweeners (“that’s a hit to me”) that literally define the song’s feel, and still to this day sounds like an (underdog) classic. Fun Fact: Models Selita Ebanks, Miranda Kerr and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley all make cameos in the music video.
Angel (from In My Mind, 2006)
Released as the second single of Pharrell’s solo debut album ‘In My Mind’, the unfortunate underperformance in the US and Australia for lead single ‘Can I Have It Like That’ (feat. Gwen Stefani), discarded the release of ‘Angel’ in both countries. A pity, as the funky R&B and piano-driven song is musically one of Pharrell’s solo highlights. It also reminds strongly of music by Bruno Mars before he was even known to the public.
An ode to women, Pharrell describes his lover literally as an angel and adds in the hook that he doesn’t care that she “can’t fly over things” or that you “can’t see her wings” what’s normally the case with angels. Two music videos were shot, with one not making it on TV, showing a lot of girls, Pharrell very close to them, with cartoon elements in there as well (real live cherries with drawn faces singing along to the song, an animation style that reminds of Cartoon Network’s ‘The Amazing World of Gumball’). However, the actual video that made it to music channels is a more ‘classier’ version, directed by Hype Williams, viewing inside a golden frame showing Pharrell in a suit and playing the piano, surrounded by pretty girls with one model even wearing angel wings. A smooth talker and ultimate player, Pharrell shows that he has a knack for what ladies want and what ladies like.
Marilyn Monroe (from GIRL, 2014)
For 23 seconds the listener enjoys a solo violin piece by famous violin player Ann Marie Calhoun. Then, out of nowhere, Pharrell comes in with one single word: “Different.” And funky beats start to appear. The word ‘different’ describes the whole lyrical content of the song as Pharrell is expressing his wish of having the girl of his fantasies and simply just wants a ‘different girl’ (“What can we do? We’re hopeless romantics / We cannot help who we’re attracted to.”) The opener track of his second album ‘GIRL’, it literally carries the theme of the entire LP, especially as Pharrell literally showcases his desire for a girl that suits his dreams. The lyrics in the hook then explain that he is not looking for ‘perfect’ but rather someone who is different than the rest: “Not even Marilyn Monroe, Queen Cleopatra please, not even Joan of Arc / They don’t mean nothing to me / I just want a different girl.”
In the final line of the track he then exclaims “since now I found you, why the hell would I want to lose you?” – meaning he eventually did find the ‘different girl’ of his dreams and is maybe linked to his own love in real life. The highly choreographed music video then showcases many women in different shades and looks, highlighting how every one of them is aesthetic in their own way. Very fashionable looks as well – it’s like flipping through a Vogue magazine – and out of the blue the fashion designer, singer, and TV personality Kelly Osbourne makes a cameo with purple hair and a dagger in her hand and provides a quick speech during the second half of the song: “In honor of the groove and to all who surrendered to it, we say thank you and we take it back.” Released as the second single after massive hit ‘Happy’, the song’s instrumental music has a similar vibe like the lead single, mixing funk with pop elements (even though it was a bit overshadowed by the previous success of ‘Happy’). The song though still has a nice flow to this day.
Frontin’ (feat. Jay-Z) (from The Neptunes Present… Clones, 2003)
For years Pharrell was known for so many different things: A famous music producer, multi-instrumentalist, a member of his band N.E.R.D., a fashion mogul, and of course as an occasional singer and rapper, mostly in tracks for artists that he produced the song for. Then in 2003, he and his Neptunes production partner Chad Hugo (and also one-third of his band N.E.R.D.) decided to release an album with songs they produced, featuring themselves and various artists. This compilation titled ‘The Neptunes Present… Clones’ made it on top of the Billboard Charts, and also found success with singles, especially the first released: Simply titled ‘Frontin’ and featuring a short but sweet rap sequence by Jay-Z, it most probably is his first real solo single. The first time it’s not a release with a band or a song with his voice in the background, or as a feature for another artist. This is indeed his first, and maybe even also one of his best solo releases. Even though at the time he saw the song more as a one-off and not interested to be a solo performer.
Borrowing similar keyboard sounds like in Justin Timberlake’s ‘Rock Your Body’ (which was also produced by him and Chad Hugo), the mid-tempo rhythm creates an easy-going vibe between R&B and some hip-hop to the side, and lyrically is a direct interaction with a girl who’s into Pharrell, with Pharrell admitting that he was showing off (literally fronting). In the music video, two girls try to enter an exclusive private party, one saying “Is Pharrell here?”, though the bouncer responds “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The second girl then says the secret code to get in, which is the before mentioned album title, and both can enter in a venue where inside is a chill party with a skate rank, and Pharrell meeting the girls, with one of them (who’s also on the single CD cover) catching his interest. The music video is also filled with 2000s fashion and looks, suiting the 2003 released song, like leisure clothing (including his Billionaire Boys Club shirt collection) or digital cameras that were used before smartphones came along. ‘Frontin’ stays a classic, and the positive response, as well as the top 10 chart success, most likely made him re-think the possibility to also endeavor as a solo act in music.
Happy (from Despicable Me 2 (Soundtrack), 2013, and GIRL, 2014)
Though Pharrell was successful as ever in the late 90s and 2000s, he interesting enough was not always put in the limelight. This then changed in 2013: Not only one but three massive hit singles from that year made people acknowledge him more than ever before. His number one collaborations with Daft Punk (‘Get Lucky’), and with Robin Thicke and T.I. (‘Blurred Lines’) influenced the charts globally. And just when you think his Gladstone Gander lucky streak already found his peak, he surprisingly once again surprised the world with ‘Happy’, released in November 2013. Chosen as the lead single off the soundtrack-album ‘Despicable Me 2’, and also featured in the movie, Pharrell explained that when he was asked to contribute music for the film, nine other tracks he gave to the filmmakers were all rejected as the songs did not match the specific scene they wanted to place the music in. Then, after the nine rejections, ‘Happy’ was chosen, and since then the song literally made its own history. Before the actual single release, the song made it at the number one spot of the Dutch charts in October of that year (the first country where it charted), with the help of airplay of Dutch radio station 3FM, and for being used in a Dutch Transavia Airlines commercial. Furthermore, the song also gained a lot of attention in The Netherlands for its use at a funeral: 24-year-old Dennis van Metelen was killed during a car crash on November 2013, and as Dennis was known for being a happy and positive person, his parents decided to lighten up his funeral by playing ‘Happy’, a song his mother already known and liked, and strongly reminded her of her son. Dennis then once again was honored with a ‘Happy’ flash mob held in Amsterdam, concluding with heartfelt words from Pharrell to the family of Dennis.
While in The Netherlands the song was given recognition first, ‘Happy’ slowly but surely became its own trendsetter. To coincide the release of the single, a 24-hour music video was released, launched on website 24hoursofhappy.com, and features Pharrell, as well as many other individuals dancing and miming to the song, following the camera throughout Los Angeles from day until night (with 24-hour timeframe and 360 four-minute segments). Many celebrities join in the fun and make cameos, from Magic Johnson, Kelly Osbourne, Gavin DeGraw, to Miranda Cosgrove, who played Margo in both Despicable Me films. The ‘Happy’ movement did not stop there but created a global phenomenon, where countless filmmakers and amateurs around the world created their own national version of the ‘Happy’ video, with people dancing and lip-syncing the famous track in their own home town, mostly named ‘Pharrell Williams – Happy – We Are from [name of the place or city]’. A French couple created the website wearehappyfrom.com to display all the self-made tribute videos – with so far 1950 videos from 153 countries. ‘Happy’ reached number 1 around the globe, won a Grammy for Best Music Video and Best Pop Solo Performance (the live version of the song) at the 57th ceremony. It was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song at the 86th Academy Awards, but lost against ‘Let It Go’ from Frozen.
Beautiful (Snoop Dogg feat. Pharrell, from Paid tha Cost to Be da Bo$$, 2002)
There may not be any other short-form video from the 2000s that can bring the closer feels of Rio de Janeiro than the music video for Snoop Dogg’s and Pharrell’s ‘Beautiful’ from 2003. Released as the second single of Snoop’s sixth studio album ‘Paid tha Cost to Be da Bo$$’ (2002) it became an instant hit with summer-esque R&B vibes and flavors of West Coast hip hop. Produced by Pharrell and Chad Hugo as The Neptunes, who also produced the lead single ‘From tha Chuuuch to da Palace’ (where Pharrell also sings in), the song’s easy and nice flow became immediately an instant classic with the help of Pharrell’s high note singing and Charlie Wilson’s additional humming.
In comparison to the in-your-face lead ‘Chuuuch’, ‘Beautiful’ instead managed bigger mainstream success, and the video shot in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro helped to put an imprint in the charts and in people’s minds. Starting off with a boy on his bike (with the view of Rio in the background), his white 80s style mobile phone rings, with a man responding “Let me talk to Snoop.” The boy, running through alleys of Rio, reaches him, saying “Snoop, telefone” (in Portuguese), hands the phone to Snoop Dogg, who sits on a relaxed posture on a wooden chair, with a girl behind him combing his hair, and gets informed on the phone: “Yo Dogg, we on the way to do the video” – and the track starts playing while shoots of sunny Rio and the people are shown: From beaches to Copacabana, Escadaria Selarón, Corcovado, Parque Lage, and many more places in and around Rio.
Pharrell and Snoop are seen sitting on stairways colored in the yellow-green-blue flag colors of Brazil (fun fact: they started coloring the stairway in 1990 and was finished the day they shot ‘Beautiful’). A special treat that’s only seen and heard in the video is a loud drum performance towards the ending of the song. It follows a short silence after the drums with a calm “yeah” by Pharrell – followed by another silence, then he starts off again by exclaiming “oh there’s something about you”, and the beat of the song continues, with Pharrell showing the classic ‘getting that dirt off your shoulder’-move. The song then slowly fades, and even though the street parts and side roads that are shown may provide a one-sided impression of the city, it does help to create an infectious vibe.
Drop It Like It’s Hot (Snoop Dogg feat. Pharrell, from R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta): The Masterpiece, 2004)
Pretty much soon after ‘Beautiful’ was released, Snoop continued working with The Neptunes on his follow-up album ‘R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta): The Masterpiece’. Released in 2004, his seventh studio album was put out on Pharrell’s and Chad Hugo’s then-label Star Trak, and carries notable funk elements and smooth R&B produced by The Neptunes. Songs like ‘Perfect’ (feat. Charlie Wilson) or ‘Let’s Get Blown’, that both also feature Pharrell’s vocals, connect nicely with ‘Beautiful’ and offer a similar direction in rhythm and style. Snoop, therefore, found a new line in expressing his signature raps. Not to forget the disco-inspired ‘Signs’, also by the Neptunes, and featuring Justin Timberlake and Charlie Wilson.
And then there was ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’. Released as the lead single of ‘R&G’, the song’s tone and feel is very different compared to the other Neptunes-produced tracks from the album. The funk and the slow-jam R&B is gone, and Snoop Dogg rather introduces himself in more traditional hip-hop fashion for his 7th long-player. A black and white music video, fancy cars, beautiful girls, swagger, and gangster-attitude (“I’m a bad boy, with a lot of h**s / Drive my own cars and wear my own clothes”). The approach doesn’t seem like something out of the ordinary at first, but the song itself stands out for many reasons, especially for its creative use of sounds. Bongos, drum machines, and white noise – but especially clicking sounds. The tongue clicks are performed in a rhythmic line with different notes, which rarely crossed over to mainstream music, and make it a standout in gangsta rap. On top of that, the phrase ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’ got a resurgence and became a popular saying. Pharrell, who performs the first verse of the song, raps in attitude that underlines West Coast hip-hop with confidence (“I’m a nice dude with some nice dreams / See these ice cubes? See these Ice Creams?”). Snoop then follows right after in the second and third verse and continues an ongoing flow. The song was the first number 1 record for Snoop Dogg and was Pharrell’s highest-charting single before the release of 2013s ‘Get Lucky’, ‘Blurred Lines’, and ‘Happy’. Furthermore, ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’ was named the most popular Rap Song of the 2000s by Billboard. Fun fact: Snoop Dogg’s sons Corde and Cordell both make cameo appearances in the music video.
Boys (Britney Spears feat. Pharrell, from Austin Powers in Goldmember (Soundtrack), 2002)
When Britney was in between her ‘not a girl, not yet a woman’ transition and during the then-popular trend of image changes of pop stars that were going on in the 2000s, she decided to get into more provocative themes for her third album ‘Britney’ (2001) where Pharrell with the help of his Neptunes production partner Chad Hugo created two tracks that rolled down the carpet for more mature and urban styles for her: In hot-blooded lead single ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’ (which was originally meant for Janet Jackson), and ‘Boys’ – a bass-filled track with underlining themes of hip-hop, R&B, and funk, where Britney raps in a half speaking and half-singing combo. Put out as the final single off her album and served as soundtrack single for the film ‘Austin Powers in Goldmember’ (2002), ‘Boys’ was released as single-version entitled ‘The Co-Ed Remix’ and features Pharrell taking over the second verse and the parts of the hook. Originally a solo song, the version featuring Pharrell plays an interesting back-and-forth game when Britney – exclaiming ‘Boys!’ – describes sexual tensions, and Pharrell – exclaiming ‘Girls!’ – follows up the vibe in chill attitude. It would eventually take them five years later to release another funky record on Britney’s ‘Blackout’ album, where Pharrell’s background humming and in between exclamations (“Britney, let’s go!”) creates yet another rhythmic banger in the track ‘Why Should I Be Sad’ (2007) or in unreleased but noticeable ‘Sugarfall’, also produced with Chad Hugo. The chemistry works, and ‘Boys’ is definitely one of them that naturally attracts with Pharrell’s slick coolness that he shares with Britney.
Get Lucky (Daft Punk feat. Pharrell & Nile Rodgers, from Random Access Memories, 2013)
Whatever happened in 2013 for Pharrell, it worked and put him in the spotlight. Putting his hands on Robin Thicke’s instant comeback and breakthrough hit ‘Blurred Lines’, where he produced, wrote, and sang in between the funk-inspired track, he brought himself even more in the limelight with ‘Happy’ that same year. But if that’s not enough, Pharrell showed that he always has some trick up his sleeve – especially because of his no-boundary approach – and decided to make a collaboration with French electronic music duo Daft Punk. Known for their house music between the late 90s and mid-2000s, they especially made notice of themselves with ‘Around the World’, ‘One More Time’, and ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ which was later sampled for Kanye West’s ‘Stronger’, but also were known for the space-anime music videos they released and other creative visuals, like in ‘Revolution 909’ where they show a tomato’s road from harvest to cooked sauce.
Pharrell saw the artistry, and created a disco-inspired track with himself as the lead singer: ‘Get Lucky’. No other single of Daft Punk charted as high as the latter – reaching number 2 on the Billboard Charts, and was a re-introduction for the French duo in the 2010s. Furthermore, as interest in Daft Punk ranked high, it made acapella group Pentatonix, who were fans of Daft Punk before, release a cover medley, simply called ‘Daft Punk’, which helped them peak higher tops in their career, even receiving a Grammy for their cover at the 2014 ceremony. Daft Punk also won that evening the award for the Record of the Year, plus many other categories for their album ‘Random Access Memories’. Pharrell’s also featured in ‘Lose Yourself to Dance’ in that album, another funky track, but did not get the same recognition that ‘Get Lucky’ received, perhaps due to the blown-up success that outshined other singles from that album. While their hit song, as great as it is, got a little over-heard, it still delivers with guitar, funk, and disco with elements of Daft Punk’s signature voice distortions.
Feels (Calvin Harris feat. Pharrell, Katy Perry & Big Sean, from Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, 2017)
The Scottish DJ Calvin Harris knows how to pull his strings with American artists. Like a magnet, he pulls them together and creates something between pop and electronic music. Who would ever forget his collaboration with Rihanna in 2011 (‘We Found Love’), or his solo records like ‘Feels So Close’ from that same year that helped shape a sound between mainstream with dance influences. ‘Feels’, on the other side, that he created with Pharrell, is basically like a renewed ‘Get Lucky’ smushed with elements of Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ that Pharrell also helped create. But on top of that, elements of funk, ska and disco create a more ‘fluffier’ effect that makes ‘Feels’ still able to stand out. With Katy Perry’s sweet voice in the hook, that floats nicely and is not sang over the top to match literally the feels of the song. Furthermore, Big Sean’s rap fits in nicely during the second half of the song, and brings a smooth and solid rap performance, guided of course with Pharrell’s melodic verses. No wonder the song hit charts worldwide.
But the actual great part is – even though four artists perform one song – they all manage to have their own standout moments without stepping on each other’s feet. The easy feel is accompanied in the music video where all four of them are stranded in a desert island (and funny enough it obviously but purposely looks clearly like a set rather than an actual island). Pharrell stays chill in a boat with sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt, while Calvin in a similar outfit sits on a stone by the shore jamming with his electronic guitar (although not plugged in), while blonde Katy Perry walks around a field of yellow flowers matching her yellow dress. Big Sean, in contrast, sits on an oak-like wooden chair with a tropical green background, with two red parrots on his right and left side. A very beautiful and colorful music video directed by Emil Nava (though all four of them don’t really do much except for living the atmosphere). The song was also promoted with a second video, with Calvin, Pharrell, Big Sean, and Katy performing together as a band in retro look with neon lights, in front of a (not seen) live audience. The retro feel suits the song, but also still appeals with modern and timeless sounds. Therefore, the song manages to deliver its own vibe that catches on. The message is literally “don’t be afraid to catch feels”, as sung by Katy in the hook.
Bonus: Light Your Ass on Fire (Busta Rhymes feat. Pharrell, from The Neptunes Present… Clones, 2003)
It’s almost as if you’re watching a cartoon, but then again, it’s Busta Rhymes – known for his comical, weird and colorful music videos (‘Gimme Some More’, ‘Touch It’). ‘Light Your Ass On Fire’ is one of the many: A Busta in biker outfit competes with a nice-dressed square-looking guy. Probably two halves of the same person, good versus bad, and who’s going to get the girl in the end. When entering the girl’s house, the good guy tries his best to make a good impression, like cooking sausages for example, but trips on an orange kicked towards his direction by Busta who many times blocks his plans. Towards the ending, the good guy accidentally ends up in the girl’s bathroom (using the toilet there), and when he wants to escape, Busta quickly closes the door and the girl – naked and in shock he’s in there – punches him in the face, and just like a cartoon is smashed out of the window into the air. Pharrell, on the other side, sneaks behind the wooden fence and peaks into the garden – looking inside the handle of a lemonade-filled glass can – and watches the girl in the bikini, while he holds a cornetto-like ice cream waffle, later joined by neighbor friends, snooping too. Cartoonish and puberal as ever, but a good laugh. The song itself is especially noticeable for its futuristic beat – electronic sound effects that build a hip-hop rhythm – sounding so different, it’s sad the track often gets underappreciated. One of Busta’s underdog singles from his heydays, but also a promising insider track that’s one of the highlights of the Neptunes’ ‘Clones’ album. And let’s not forget Busta’s crazy rap performance: Quick and fast like we know him, creative and funny.