Pharrell Williams: Student of Yacht Rock
By Erica Slutsky
Singer, songwriter, clothing designer, and reality TV coach Pharrell Williams has made no secret of his love for Steely Dan. Though an established pop super-producer by age 30, as well as one half of the experimental alt-rock trio N.E.R.D., Williams was never shy to mention their formative influence on him, and critics were keen to make the comparison between Pharrell’s beats and Yacht Rock relatively early.
But, to cite the Dan’s influence on Pharrell, and how far it spans his own genre-hopping body of work, would be a moot point – tantamount to comparing the Grateful Dead’s love of jamming to that of Phish. To only mention Steely Dan in surveying Pharrell’s comprehensive discography isn’t seeing the proverbial dock for the boats: Pharrell was, and always has been, a serious student of Yacht Rock.
True, it isn’t a stretch to compare Messrs. Fagen and Becker, who met as philosophical jazz nerds in college, to Williams and fellow N.E.R.D. Chad Hugo in their high school jazz band. But an unmistakable Yacht Rock vibe dominates the band’s 2004 sophomore effort Fly or Die. Armed with slick electric piano, poppy hooks, and snarky, literate wordplay, Williams, Hugo, and Shay Haley added hard-edged modern trappings, like clanging electric guitars, heavy percussion, and rap breakdowns, to the established Yacht formula.
Take the satirical “Jump,” about a different kind of fool, one who’s fed up with hipster posturing and his expensive education (how very Can’t Buy a Thrill!). So he romanticizes his own suicide as both a meaningful, rebellious gesture and a media event. Williams, being an innovative genre-hopper, marries this Dan-worthy inner monologue with Joel and Benji Madden’s pop-punk sneering and Haley’s hyped-up chants.
Considering Pharrell’s later contributions to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, perhaps the Yacht elements weren’t entirely present on most of the other albums he wrote, produced, and even rapped on until he showed up to the studio. However, it was definitely intentional on one of Williams’ smoothest production credits, Mayer Hawthorne’s 2013 LP Where Does This Door Go. I’m not sure if Where Does This Door Go entirely qualifies as Yacht Rock, or even tangential Yacht Soul. A stylistic departure from the Motown and hip-hop influences on Hawthorne’s previous two albums, the blue-eyed soul singer’s delivery is much stronger and full of Loggins-esque conviction; he even dons a captain’s uniform in the liner notes. Still, it owes far more to Hall and Oates and “Haitian Divorce” than Bill Champlin and Jay Graydon.
Like N.E.R.D., Hawthorne the lyricist is less concerned with storytelling than smartassery and characters (mostly women) with less obvious foolish tendencies. In the tradition of the best Steely Dan and Kenny Loggins songs, the Williams-produced “Reach Out Richard” is a sometimes detailed, sometimes vague sketch of a detached father-and-son facing a difficult reconciliation. It captures the feeling of melancholy while keeping its emotional cards close to its sweater vest.
Though Hawthorne plays most of the instruments himself, Williams also adds electric piano on top of Hawthorne’s layers of keyboards for the “Reelin’ in the Years” homage “The Stars are Ours,” about the glory days of high school.
As with Fly or Die, Where Does This Door Go proves that Yacht Rock and rap can coexist peacefully beyond sampling, as in the Kendrick Lamar guest shot “Crime.” Against a laid-back bassline, Hawthorne sings, “We just wanna party/We don’t mean no harm/Don’t wanna hurt nobody/But they make it so hard.” The falsetto chorus, “It’s a crime,” is an ironic yet peaceful response to cops responsible for recreational marijuana busts – a hook worthy of, oddly enough, the Doobie Brothers. And Lamar’s effortless flow has never sounded sweeter. Koko would have approved of the Rashida Jones-directed video, which features a white-clad Hawthorne trying to get to a beach party.
The bonus tracks on the special edition of Where Does This Door Go are a bit similar to Hawthorne’s Hall and Oates-flavored follow-up Man About Town, although Williams’ contribution “They Don’t Know You” might toe the line between Yacht and Nyacht the closest, with its synth effects, staccato block chords, and lyrics that wryly observe the romantic styles of other men. Truthfully, the Hawthorne’s attempts to get on the boat are a bit diluted by his live shows, where electric guitars tend to override the keys. But, like Williams, Hawthorne declares himself a Yacht Rock fanboy for life, so it’s easy to see why he was particularly insistent on having Williams’ hand in producing.
As a producer and performer, Pharrell’s strength as a yachtsman is arguably the uptempo pop single, although neither Fly or Die nor Where Does This Door Go topped the charts in a significant way. In that sense, Pharrell’s dominant stylistic idiom clearly owes a great deal to Yacht Rock (the major and minor seventh chords in “Happy,” for instance), but this seems far more evident in his deep cuts than his big hits. Maybe he’s just a man out of time. N.E.R.D.’s songs hardly used sincerity and, on Fly or Die, most of the ballads are secret tracks. But certain singles, like “Happy,” tend to obscure his trademark hip-hop production touches in favor of more retro ones. Check out “Fun, Fun, Fun” from the Despicable Me soundtrack, which carries an unmistakable Doobie Bounce. Williams actually wrote the song with Donald Fagen in mind, although it’s hard to imagine Fagen singing such lines as “Hey, it’s summer mom, hey, it’s summer dad” and “Let’s get happy meals,” unless they’re coded hipster-speak for something else.