images Francesco Allegretto/Venice Projects; Galerie Perrotin
words Owen Pritchard
Pharrell Williams was responsible, as 50 percent of the Neptunes, for producing records by Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Nelly, Kelis and Beyonce that defined the chart-dominating electro R&B sound of the 1990s and early 2000s. He was also part of NERD, who released four successful albums, and has earned considerable recognition as a solo artist. Aside from this, he has designed bikes and furniture, created art with Takashi Murakami and launched two successful clothing brands – Billionaire Boys Club and Icecream. As Williams approaches 40, he is estimated to be worth over $77m, and remains at the forefront of music and fashion, currently working with, among others, Justin Bieber and Bloomingdales.
Williams has now shared his story in a book published by Rizzoli, and gathered a starry list of collaborators to reflect and expand upon his world view and empire.
In his introduction Williams reveals that he has always been driven by a desire to occupy the world he learned about through television: “Not only did places and spaces I’d seen on television as a child exist in three dimensions. Some were even real.” Music was the tool that allowed him to pass through the screen – the book is an invitation to join him there. “So many spaces and places I have been,” he writes. “Please enjoy some of the wonderfully vivid folks I’ve picked up along the way.”
This oversized book is an opulent catalogue of Williams’ world and achievements. It is split between interviews, transcribed on to low-quality bright yellow paper printed to look like it has been produced by a risograph, and contrasting glossy images of Williams and his subjects. These are gathered from high-end fashion shoots by photographers such as Terry Richardson and David La Chappelle – Williams and his work are shot with a reverence reserved for the upper echelons of the fashion and media world.
The scope of the people interviewed reads like a cooler version of a list by Hans Ulrich Obrist. Williams conducts informal conversations with, among others, Jay-Z, Buzz Aldrin, Anna Wintour, Hans Zimmer and Zaha Hadid. The status of these interviewees suggests a degree of self-validation by Williams, but it sometimes leads to genuinely funny, if bizarre, interactions. The Aldrin interview begins with the octogenarian former astronaut calling, “How’s it with you, bro?”, while Williams’s NERD collaborator Shae Haley gives this explanation of their style of musical experimentation: “Then add a baboon to the group … and if that doesn’t work you should get a giraffe, and if that doesn’t work, then just go and get the ring master.” What becomes clear in some of the bonkers conversations is that Williams has a knack for getting people excited about ideas, be it Hadid designing prefab housing (just imagine) or using Aldrin to find inspiration for a hip-hop album about Mars.
It is easy to scoff, but Williams has understood and capitalised on the reputations and abilities of those around him, appreciating the nuances of each market in which he has chosen to operate and then twisting its ideals to suit him. The projects presented are undeniably youth-orientated – even the collaboration with Murakami that fetishises ubiquitous consumer products such as Pepsi cans or Heinz Ketchup bottles by encrusting them with jewels. Each product, be it chairs, clothes or bikes, has a naivety and brashness to which hip-hop obsessed teenagers aspire. It also becomes clear that people listen to Williams and respect his ideas, leaving the argument about the relevance of his abilities as an auteur down to style and taste.
This book is an oddity, a compelling list of interviewees, a complex and expansive portfolio of work and a testament to a man achieving his dreams to occupy the world presented to him by television. The plastic world that he has occupied and filled is the stuff that the hundreds of thousands of X Factor wannabes and design school students can only dream of. Williams, it appears, just wants to share that.
Pharrell: Places and Spaces I've Been by Pharrell Williams, Rizzoli, $55.