The pale pink cream liqueur Pharrell Williams pours into a tumbler of ice isn’t just for me, but for all womankind. He urges me to smell, to sniff, to sip, watching attentively for my reaction. The summer sun has begun to set over the patio of the Standard East Village hotel in New York City, where he manages to make even his sales pitch sound seductive: It’s 99.9 percent lactose-free (“so if you’re lactose-intolerant like me, then you’re good”); it’s thinner than other cream liqueurs (“it’s less like a milkshake and more like Yoo-hoo, so instantly you’re not thinking about, ‘Oh, you know, five more hours this week on the treadmill’”); it’s only 12.5 percent alcohol by volume (“the same alcohol by volume as white wine, so you can sip as much as you want and you’re not rolling around the room”). The idea came to him after listening to the concerns of his female friends—most of his friends are female—and he cared, he really cared, that there wasn’t yet a good, sweet drink out there for women of discerning taste. “This is not a club drink,” he says. “It’s for around the house with your girls. It’s after dinner. It’s definitely poolside.” He stares deep into my eyes. Do I taste the strawberry? Does it taste good? It’s called Qream. The Q, he says, is “because it’s made for queens.”
Williams has just come from his BULLETT photo shoot, which required him—poor thing—to be entangled in bed sheets with a beautiful model he’d helped handpick. “I love my job,” he says, grinning at the near-nude memories of a few minutes ago. “I’m so lucky. I’m trying to figure out when they’re just going to go, ‘Hey, what are you doing here? Get out!’” It won’t likely be anytime soon. In October, Rizzoli will publish Pharrell: Places and Spaces I’ve Been, a beautiful, coffee table–ready celebration of the 39-year-old entrepreneur’s influence as a rapper, producer, fashion designer, thinker, and dreamer (though, sadly, not as a ladies’ beverage impresario). It’s a book so reverential it’s practically deifying. Williams begins with a conversation about Biggie Smalls with Jay-Z, whose own exhaustive, line-by-line analysis of his lyrics, mixed with his memoir, Decoded, set the standard for serious rappers’ selfcanonization. From there he talks to Buzz Aldrin about physics and Drake (that is, astronomer Frank Drake, who developed an equation to estimate the number of alien civilizations that might be present in the Milky Way); to Anna Wintour about male style; to architect Zaha Hadid about the line of prefab houses he proposes they do together (he’s also said he wants Frank Gehry and Hadid to design him a mansion partially submerged in the ocean); to Hans Zimmer about that time they composed the music for the 2011 Academy Awards; and to Kanye West about being misunderstood. Images abound from his 2009 Art Basel installation, for which he collaborated with Takashi Murakami to bedazzle Heinz ketchup bottles and Pepsi cans with fine gems at the height of the financial crisis, and the two clothing lines, beloved by alterna-cool (rather than gangsta) urban youth, he designs with A Bathing Ape founder, Nigo: Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream. Both lines brim over with an appreciation for cartoons, Japan, bright colors, spaceships, girlie pinups, a reluctance to grow up, and Williams’ unstoppable sweet tooth. Picture a sweatshirt and matching hat covered in a print that looks like a syrup-drenched Belgian waffle.
Like all heroic tales, Williams’ begins with a heightened-reality story of origin: Latchkey kid in depressed Virginia Beach, beating the couch with grandma’s “cakestirrers” to TV theme songs. Introduce real drums in seventh grade music class. Form a band with a couple of like minded cool nerds, Chad Hugo and Sheldon “Shae” Haley, to perform at high school talent shows with socks pulled up to the knees, wearing Helly Hansen raincoats and rain hats. Get spotted by a record label scout at one of those high school talent shows. Get signed. Get work, first as a Williams- Hugo producing duo, the Neptunes. Develop a distinctive, tripped-out electronic space-funk sound and produce megahits like Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Your Money,” Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” Britney Spears’ “I’m A Slave 4 U,” and Nelly’s “Hot in Herre.” Get so hot that you produce nearly half the songs on the Billboard Hot 100 in August 2003. Reunite the band on the side. Change the name to N.E.R.D., as in No One Ever Really Dies, to honor friends who keep dying on you, as they tend to do when you’ve grown up talented and ambitious in a rough city from which only a few ever get out. Write your own hit song, called “She Wants to Move,” with lyrics like, “Her ass is a spaceship I want to ride.” Open for the Beastie Boys. Start designing clothes. Move into a penthouse 40 stories above Miami. Fill it with Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga arcade games; a home theater you only use to play Mario Kart; life-size statues and giant paintings of Agent Smith from The Matrix , SpongeBob SquarePants, the Smurfs, the Simpsons, Stewie from Family Guy , and the Michelin Man; legit pop art from Murakami, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and KAWS; and a “Perspective” chair you designed from two pairs of mannequin legs (one male, one female) to symbolize love. Call yourself a “kidult.” Do more N.E.R.D. albums that don’t do as well. Tell magazines you’re too old “to be around loud music and drunk, young bitches all night.” Still write songs with lyrics like, “Go on and touch it, girl / go on and touch it, girl.”
As we sit opposite one another, sipping Qream, Williams never once mentions the book, and there’s only one origin story that seems to matter to him. “What are we without women?” he muses. “All humans are here via women. Women are literally the vessels that birth us into existence.” Dig deeper, and he can’t talk about the fairer sex without slipping into double entendre. Why does he gravitate toward women? “I’m trying to find a politically correct way of saying I am what I eat,” he says, smiling because he knows exactly what image that conjures. “But I mean that in a more general and respectful way: I’m all about girls, you know what I mean? If you cut me open, all of my admiration for women comes tumbling out.” Specifically, he admires “that little elevator they have” to “deliver humans to our reality.” Another image springs to mind. “It gets incredibly dirty as you move on,” Williams says, chuckling. He has to stop himself from getting too graphic sometimes, “or it’ll be like, ‘Oh my god, did you hear what he just said? Womanizer!’”
Photography by Tim Barber