Ten years ago yesterday, Pharrell released his debut album In My Mind. He'd already spent the first half of the 2000s flexing as one-half of the production duo the Neptunes on Jay Z's "I Just Wanna Love You," "Excuse Me Miss" and "Change Clothes"; Snoop Dogg's "Beautiful" and "Drop It Like It's Hot"; and Clipse's "Grindin'" and "When The Last Time"—all of which sauntered on to Ryan Seacrest's sacred Top 40.
So that's more than just a matchless record (though if you need numbers, take note of when 43% of U.S. radio songs were produced or written by him); it's proof that Pharrell had created (or captured) the equivalent of a musical zeitgeist in hip-hop. You'd be lying if you couldn't pinpoint P's sound: all popped bubbles, but never bubblegum pop.
But aside from his successful 2003 one-off single "Frontin,'" Pharrell was far from ready to go solo. And In My Mind revealed that.
Up until that point, he'd happily found his pocket sitting in the sidecar on featured hooks and ad libs, so going at it alone, finding enough verbiage to fill an hour's worth of an album, was a tall order. To be fair, just being around rappers a ton does not make you one—in fact, monkey-see-monkey-do in that industry will warrant cries of inauthenticity—and P had rightfully been pretty damn busy creating a signature and highly-sought sound, so forgive him if his flow failed to meet expectations. There'd been hope because his casual cockiness had shown so brightly before, okay? Hello, "I'm a nice dude/ with some nice dreams..."
But that became In My Mind's downfall. For 64 minutes, Pharrell forced his flashy on us. Opener "Can I Have It Like That," with its cinematic jazzy intro, naturally namechecked Ice Cream Sneakers, NSXs, Learjets, Jimmy Choos, and Sunseeker yachts. (Still, it gave me my MySpace tagline at the time—"It totally intensifies the vivid ass appeal of it"—so I overlooked all the things my wallet could not identify.)
But then there were his rhyming schemes, clunky and uncreative: “My ni—a close your eyes/ Just picture yourself just holdin' pies/ Implement a plan and you surely rise/ This promised by the man that controls the skies." That toddler-level monorhyme nearly marred the rattling marching-band beat of "How Does It Feel?" (But, hey, if you think of the aspirational encouragement as the pre-finessed, first iteration of "Happy"-era Pharrell, it all makes sense.)
There were more misses: We won't mention the silly bounce of "Raspy Shit" because even Tyler, the Creator, who calls Pharrell a "role model," has named it the worst song in P's discography. The soul-vamp that P had created for Beyoncé's "Work It Out" a few years earlier didn't fit nearly as well on his very own "Keep It Playa," nor did the synthy strings he'd just gifted to Robin Thicke's "Wanna Love You Girl" on his own "Young Girl." And the drums on "Baby" too-easily recalled Nelly Furtado's then-just-released "Maneater" (which had been produced by a comparable counterpart, Timbaland).
"That Girl" and "Angel," all falsetto come-hithers over funk, provided some foresight into what would later populate Pharrell's second album G I R L, but it'd be eight long years before he brushed himself off to try his hand at that solo-dom again. (To compare, In My Mind has sold 406,000 copies to date while G I R L has nabbed 591,000 in a fifth of the time.)
Pharrell's missteps weren't lost on him. But, in retrospect, they kind of were on us—because it's not like he rapped about anything we hadn't heard before. Back then, wasn't boast and bling everything? Isn't it still?
In 2012, he told British GQ, "When I used to rap I'd say things that today I would consider obnoxious. That was a different time. Everyone was braggadocio. Luckily, I'm a curious person so as you live and learn you grow. Who wants to talk about cars and houses and jewelry all the time? I got tired of it."
And to make it clearer, he reiterated himself in 2014, with GQ again: "I wrote those songs out of ego. Talking about the money I was making and the by-products of living that lifestyle…. The money was too loud. The success was too much. The girls were too beautiful. The jewelry was too shiny. The cars were too fast. The houses were too big. It's like not knowing how to swim and being thrown in the ocean for the first time."
He added, "What was good about that? What'd you get out of it? There was no purpose. I was so under the wrong impression at that time.... I didn't realize you should have a purpose."
Ultimately, in the very, very, very long run, we should be happy (ha!) that In My Mind fell flat (though even that can be argued since it garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album) because P's blow to the ego is what inspired him to stick to (and absolutely strong-hold) some much-needed feel-good music. And since today's rappers, despite a few bright spots, are easily distracted by Twitter beefs, memes and unnecessary rivalries, it doesn't hurt to have an act to counter that.