Pharrell – “G I R L”

(Photo Credit: Hollywood Reporter)

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Hunter” “Gust of Wind”

This was a risky time for Pharrell to release a solo album. He’s riding the waves of one of the most successful years someone in music can have. He had guest spots on the two biggest songs of last summer – “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines,” and he co-wrote and produced two songs on Beyonce’s instant-legend self-titled album. He wore a silly, hip-hop-historical and now famous hat to the Grammy’s, and he released a 24 hour music video for his big hit, “Happy.” Pharrell is, nowadays, now famous for producing and guest spots, hugely overshadowing his solo work and his music with N.E.R.D. and the Neptunes. So if “G I R L” were to be underwhelming, it would likely derail the ever-increasing speed of the train that Pharrell is at the helm of. Luckily, “G I R L” is a sufficient pop release. It isn’t the most memorable of albums, but it strongly benefits from an all-inviting sound, a consistent feminist agenda, and huge name guest spots from Pharrell’s long, long contact list.

Pharrell tried to hit all bases with “G I R L,” and he certainly succeeds. It’s sexy – like the sweaty “Hunter.” It’s classy, with opener “Marilyn Monroe.” And it’s friendly – centered around the smash hit “Happy,” which seems to actually be stylized on the album as “Happy (from Despicable Me 2).” You know, the kids movie. The very next song is “Come Get It Bae,” featuring the not-family-friendly Miley Cyrus. Whatever your fancy is with pop music, “G I R L” likely hits it.

The guest spots, though usually not the focus of a review, are something to marvel at. As mentioned, Miley drops in. And so do Alicia Keys, Daft Punk, Kelly Osbourne, a very falsetto-y Justin Timberlake, Timbaland (relegated to beatboxing) and, unpredictably, JoJo. And the strings on the album – arranged by Hans Zimmer. The cast on this album reads like a Wes Anderson movie. And just like an Anderson film – some of the appearances are solely based on “look who I got to be here!,” while some, especially Daft Punk, add a whole level of depth and help separate each track from the next.

And it’s good that each song is distinct enough to stand out – because Pharrell, on his own, isn’t actually all that strong. The rare moments when he raps on the album work, but otherwise, his voice usually just blends into the background. Think about “Happy” – his voice only overpowers the music because the music is minimal during the chorus, and it’s catchy because of how his voice acts as an instrument, not for the lyrics. There are moments where he ups into falsetto, and he really doesn’t hit the notes. There are a couple moments were it resembles watching a Top 12 American Idol giving what you just know is their last performance. It just isn’t quite there, overall. But it’s a boatload of fun, so it’s never an issue.

“G I R L” is all linked together by a distinctly feministic tone. It’s almost possible to see this – and “Get Lucky” and his work on Beyonce’s album – as an apology for the gut-wrechnigly misogynist (and possibly divorce-causing) “Blurred Lines.” Pharrell sometimes skirts the lines of male pop feminism – respecting women’s bodies and sexual desires, etc., and sometimes fully delves into actual feminism. It helps to create a consistent tone, and let’s be real, it’s just nice to hear. Inviting feminist-leaning artists like Daft Punk, Timberlake and the severely misunderstood Miley Cyrus only helps that. The era of patriarchal sex-pop is coming to a close, and Pharrell seems to be the one locking the doors.

So “G I R L” only suffers from Pharrell himself not being the most talented singer. And given that this is his first solo album in eight years, it’s not his specialty. He produced the whole album, and wrote every song, much more his strong suits. The album is not the most memorable, because it all feels familiar. But it’s still enjoyable and every song is unique. It sounds by the books, if every song was taken from a different book than the one previous. “G I R L” is a listen for those of all ages and musical preferences. There’s something for everyone, and his “music for everyone” approach helps to bolster the feminist themes. “G I R L” won’t be one of the albums of the year, but it’s a more than decent pop release, and one that will help Pharrell continue his unstoppable reign.

-By Andrew McNally

Miley Cyrus – “Bangerz”

(Photo Credit: Rolling Stone)

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “4×4,” “Wrecking Ball”

The opening track on “Bangerz,” called “Adore You,” is a very slow-crawling song about romance. It’s unexpected, but it sends a message – theatrics aside, Miley is taking her music seriously. She easily (and maybe expectedly) could’ve released an album of fun, partying Ke$ha copies, but she hasn’t. There is some of that present, but the focus is on a more mature persona. And she’s showing her maturity in countless ways; the album mixes club beats, synth and even country rhythms over songs about love and romance (sometimes). And say what you will about her VMA’s bit, anyone that still sees her as a young child star is blind to the maturity of the performance (shame on you, Robin Thicke). Maybe it wasn’t the best way to do it, but the message was sent, she watched the waves that were made, and she’s standing by it.

Although this is her fourth album as Miley Cyrus, she’s calling it a ‘debut,’ because it’s the first album she’s released since leaving behind Hannah Montana. (On last Saturday’s “SNL”, she offered a brief update on Montana: “She was murdered”). It does definitely feel like a debut, or even the debut of a new character. She’s only 20, but being a child star, going through a failed engagement and being scrutinized under the public eye since she was young have certainly given her material. Lyrically, she’s fitfully dealing with adulthood, trying to recoup by sounding seasoned but still gleefully admitting to partying, driving fast and drug use. (Yes, it is a little uncomfortable to hear a 20 year old singing about Molly, but less uncomfortable than hearing the 55 year old Madonna sing about it). “4×4″ and “We Can’t Stop” are odes to a wild life, while “Wrecking Ball” and “Adore You” show varying struggles of recovery.

The album has great diversity, not without faults. It isn’t as fun as it seems like it should be. Some songs, like “FU,” really don’t go anyway and would’ve been better off staying on the drawing board. And, as much as it’s common practice for a song to get introduced by saying a rapper/producer’s name, the number of songs that start with Miley just saying “Mike Will Made It” gets very comically repetitive/annoying. Still, the faults are predictable ones for a star attempting to re-distinguish herself.

What wasn’t expected was the guest spot contributions. Britney Spears shows up for a great spot on “SMS (Bangerz),” and Future backs up the soulful “My Darlin’.” Even Nelly sounds great on “4×4,” rapping over what I can only call electro-country on the album’s most diverse and fun song. Miley doesn’t rely on the power of her voice nearly as much as she should, but when she does, you’re reminded that she can really sing. The ballad (and big hit) “Wrecking Ball” and the surprisingly effective closer “Someone Else” are the two songs where she shines vocally. She should’ve relied on her own vocals more, and the album is certainly faulty, but “Bangerz” is still a very memorable and progressive release.

-By Andrew McNally

Selena Gomez – “Stars Dance”

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Grade: C

Key Tracks: “Birthday,” “Nobody Does It Like You” (Bonus Track)

No one can blame Selena Gomez for wanting to grow up. She got trapped in the Disney Channel at a young age. And now she has had to watch two former channel-mates attempt the transition into adulthood: The Jonas Brothers, who played the Hanson route of simply growing older without changing anything, and are slowly fading into obscurity, and Miley Cyrus, whose public outbursts flip-flop between emotionally human and dementedly perverse have left bad tastes in the mouths of people who enjoy watching celebrities break down. Gomez, who can legally drink as of only yesterday, found a proper route of simply maturing. Her music and personal life are more mature than previous, without being interesting to the paparazzi. Spring Breakers was a major advancement (and for her co-star, Vanessa Hudgens, who is navigating the same path), placing her in a sexual and bleak, very-very-hard-R-rated movie. But her proper debut album, “Stars Dance” is not very interesting, either. It nails the transition into adulthood, as she creates big-beat dance songs but plays everything safe for the potential younger audience. “Safe” just goes a little too far.

There is a song on the album called “B.E.A.T.” that is vaguely about sex, direct enough for the proper audience but maybe still over the heads of any kid listeners. The chorus actually eschews Gomez’s voice briefly for a repetition of beats that represent something or other, but they are just beats. Lyrically and musically, it is very safe. Gomez never reaches for high notes. In fact, her voice is never even prominently featured. It sounds phoned in at points. The only point where it doesn’t is the bonus track “Nobody Does It Like You,” where she stretches out a little. Her voice, the beats and the lyrics are the three components of the album but none are the focus. Weak lyrics can’t make up for the weak songwriting. All of the tracks are underhand pitches thrown at the listeners. It is all completely average.

That said, it is a transition album, perhaps. It could at least be seen that way. She is still young, and much of her fanbase, younger. Safe may have been the only option. Anything more than that, and she’s the next Miley Cyrus. While the album’s bland nature might sound tedious to some listeners, it might be experimental for Gomez. This is her first time truly branching solo, and the album does a successful job treading the moderate path between Cyrus and Jonas. Unfortunately for Gomez, average is the only safe route for her to take. Blame Disney.

-By Andrew McNally