Pharrell doesn’t read much—he likes Wes Anderson movies and Coen brothers movies andClose Encounters of the Third Kind, stuff about misfits and science and outer space. But lately his favorite book is Paulo Coelho’s 1988 novel, The Alchemist, about an Andalusian shepherd boy’s search for his “personal legend”—nominally a chest full of treasure, but more generally his purpose in life, the thing he most wants to be. The book, Pharrell says, is a way to make sense of his own life.
As a child he finds that he has synesthesia, sees colors when he hears sounds. When he thinks about his childhood it comes back to him burgundy and baby blue, in strings of numbers and letters. His mother would sign notes to him with the numerals 143. It took him years to figure out what she meant. One letter, four letters, three letters: I love you. After Pharrell was born, his mother waited ten years to have a second child, and then ten more to have a third—no accident. “My mom is weird,” Pharrell says fondly. She was a schoolteacher before she retired. His father’s name is Pharaoh, who was named after his father, also Pharaoh.
This is Virginia Beach in the ’80s, a place vibrating at some mystic frequency—Timbaland, the other major producer of the era that would make Pharrell a star, just so happens to go to the same church. “We used to be up in Timbaland’s bedroom, where he would make his beats. And his dad would be in the other room. When that shit got too loud, he would be like: ‘Tim! Turn that music down!’ ” If the house had collapsed at that moment, we would’ve lost so much. We’d all be on antidepressants.
Pharrell “was the different guy,” says Pusha T of Clipse, a Virginia Beach friend from those days. The different guy meets another different guy, Chad Hugo, a Filipino navy brat. He and Chad decide to call themselves the Neptunes and spend the next bunch of years producing for Teddy Riley, Blackstreet, SWV, whoever else would have them.
Finally, in 1998, the Neptunes write “SuperThug” for the Queens rapper Noreaga. It was the kind of beat that was about to make both Neptunes absurdly wealthy—a psych-rock riff played on a clavichord, disorienting drums, hardly any bass at all. Pharrell remembers walking into a club in Virginia after the song came out, “and it just hit so hard. They were like, ‘Fuck is that?’ I’ll never forget, like, dudes throwing chairs and shit.” He watches a small riot break out to his song and knows he is going to make it.
He buys a Lexus, then a Porsche, and because he’d been a backpack rapper first—anti-jewelry, pro-consciousness, allergic to stunting—he rides around in the Porsche with a backpack on. He begins connecting weird neural paths through pop culture—songs the Neptunes wrote for Michael and Janet Jackson would instead end up, say, in the hands of Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, torches passing in the form of 808 claps and abrasive siren noises and teen lust. With N.E.R.D., the pop-funk-rock-rap-whatever-Steely-Dan-is group he starts with Hugo and another high school friend, he blazes a misfit trail that will later make possible Frank Ocean, Tyler, the Creator, and dozens of other unconventional musicians.
“Being a young black kid, especially at that time,” Tyler says, “I was different from all my other peers. So when I seen that this dude was saying he was open to rock and jazz and fucking skateboarding and all this other stuff that I was interested in, I was gravitating toward it because it was like: ‘All right, I’m not the only black dude who’s probably called weird every fucking day.’ ”
The Neptunes win Grammys that Pharrell barely remembers winning. A survey in August 2003 finds that the Neptunes are responsible for a full 43 percent of songs played on the radio that month. The boy who worshipped pop culture as a kid basically becomes it. Snoop’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” ODB’s “Got Your Money,” Jay Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” Fabolous’s “Young’n (Holla Back).” You could fill a museum with Neptunes work from this era. The songs sound like misfiring fax machines, like old Chuck Brown songs, like pager ringtones. They sound like outer space.
He moves to Miami for the women and the weather and just loses himself in the wild rich current of it all. He has custom jewelry made—a solid-gold BlackBerry, a gold skateboard chain, a gold N.E.R.D. chain, a jewel-studded pendant made in the form of a KAWS figurine. It was beautiful, the things he would do and say. He had turned his mind to being the best possible version of the worst possible guy, and we were all just witnesses. You can watch a video from 2006, Pharrell guesting on BET’s Rap City, promoting his solo record, achieving peak Pharrell-ness in the form of bejeweled nerd-icon: On the show he freestyles for a while and then fumbles in his pocket, finally pulling out a Rubik’s Cube, covered in diamonds on all six sides. He holds it out to the camera. It rotates and gleams in the light.