I’ve never seen Pharrell like this. Bothered, sullen, sardonic, approaching angry. Or, as he’ll later describe to me, “peeved.” Short of that now-infamous deposition video perhaps, one of Skateboard’s trademark qualities is his ebullience. In front of press, private interviews, and later an even more private party in Shanghai though, that’s not quite the case. He’s still more humble and polite than anyone at his level of fame and talent is expected to behave, sure. But the topic that’s gathered us all here on this Monday in China is sensitive enough to weather that affability ever so slightly, but still noticeably.
The sponsor was Louis XIII, the event, its latest campaign, 100 Years. The luxury spirit (whose bar price Yung Joc helpfully broke down for anyone not advanced enough to know) has embarked upon a call to action that doubles as both shrewd self-interest and humanitarian effort. Louis XIII has always been advanced far beyond its peers in the spirits world but as it turns out they have an eye further to the future than most of us would assume. The Louis cellarmakers literally think 100 years ahead when cultivating soil to continue making product. It’s a boastful and impressive attention to detail, but at press time, also one for concern. Given the current rate of climate change and the disturbingly large indifference to it, in 100 years time the same soil Louis XIII depends on may be washed away by rampant flooding and dangerously high sea levels.
The dual scenario inspired Louis global spokesperson Ludovic du Plessis to structure an initiative around it, one that flexes his brand’s future-forward eye while raising awareness for the uncertainty that future is imperiled in. With the next century’s problems a distant afterthought from our own, Ludovic’s plan is to inspire interest by creating pieces of art expressly made to be enjoyed in the future and then only; time capsules, whose survival and enjoyment depend on us taking the planet’s future seriously. The first phase was enlisting John Malkovich and Robert Rodriguez to make a film back in 2015. But in that instance, save a few clips, no one actually saw the finished product before it was locked away.
Not so for phase 2. Louis and Ludovic approached P to create a song with the 100 Years initiative in mind. It was then recorded on a record crafted in the very soil used in the Louis cellars. Which brings us to the event in Shanghai, where the song was played just once for 100 listeners, myself included, before being locked away into a vault kitted with every state-of-the-art feature—save vulnerability to water.
In discussing the planet’s predicament, Pharrell didn’t mince words. Standing before the crowd on a minimalist circular podium (symbolically surrounded by water) clad in a green Celine trench, a Cactus Plant Flea Market hat and Human Made tee, he laid into Trump, his EPA head Scott Pruitt and any other scientist or member of the administration who supports the narrative that climate change is a man-made theory—soft-spoken as always but impassioned nonetheless. He was even fierier in the private interview conducted with myself and other members of the press. While locking the record up, upon Ludovic’s mention that the safe is bulletproof P quipped that it needed to be so because “there’s apparently never a good time in [my] country to talk about gun control.”
Those emotions are all there on the song, which starts off in a folksy kids jingle manner before transitioning into a hard-hitting trap beat Pusha T would be at home on. “These scientists ain’t loyal” recurs; “normalize” is harmonized. It’s a different headspace and tone than we’re used to from Skateboard P, for sure.
“Think about the [head of the ]EPA, that guy doesn’t know what he’s doing or what the fuck he’s talking about…So I was writing to [the administration], I was being pessimistic, I was being sarcastic,” P explained. “It just feels like a postcard...it’s not something that I think people would listen to 900 times. I didn’t think the situation nor the pessimists I’m talking to deserve any kind of ear candy. It’s not a joyful moment or celebratory [tone]. “
The climate was the issue of note, but the general political climate has Pharrell incensed. “They want to make America great again but I just don’t remember when America was really great. I love America because of the progress that was made and the potential for new progress…but I don’t love chasing black people down in the street killing them and shit. I don’t love the idea that women don’t get paid the same as men do. The potential of what America can be is super exciting to me, but there are these guys that are in power and the people that helped put them in power. So now their sinister ways and views, and nationalist views are just super overly pronounced so I’m just peeved at the moment.”
None of us will ever hear “100 Years,” but similar sentiments abound on his new music for the present. P evokes similar social awareness sensitivity on N*E*R*D’s upcoming album. In what Pharrell tells me is his first interview post-premiering the album at Complex Con, he said: “Content wise I didn’t want to write about seemingly like everyday song matter anymore. I wanted to actually take what I felt was emotionally jolting, jarring, and piercing and tell other people’s stories that were so much more important than my own.”
“Don’t Don’t Do This,” which, features Kendrick Lamar (one of two contributions to the album) is the most prominent example, drawing morbid inspiration from the police killing of unarmed motorist Keith Scott last year in Charlotte, North Carolina. The song takes its title from the pleas of Scott’s wife to the police, which Pharrell took to be knowingly futile.
“We took this really terrible thing that happened that most people had heard about but probably forgot about a week later because as black Americans we have become desensitized to the same tragedy and travesty over and over again. I was like ‘no man,’ when I saw what was happening on television as his wife was recording what was going on, I was like people need to hear this and I felt the best way for people to hear it was for me to provide it with a melody, provide it with a hook, with music and really honor the situation so that more people can hear that this is what is going on everyday in America.”
Detailing N*E*R*D’s album is the moment when Pharrell’s more typically charming persona peeks out. He boldly declares Kendrick’s verse as “one of his illest ever,” before praising each guest star on the album (Future, Ed Sheeran, Andre 3000, M.I.A., Rihanna, Wale, Gucci Mane) for giving their “best work.” Meanwhile when describing the album’s song structure, featuring lengthy runtimes and unusual compositions, Pharrell uses none other than Optimus Prime for an example of how he Chad and Shay bucked conventional format. “It’s not intro, verse, B section chorus, second verse, b section chorus, double chorus, bridge, double chorus bam it’s over. The song structure, it literally like sounds this way for a minute or two then it changes and goes into a complete different genre using the same notes and sounds like a transformer. Optimus Prime is riding down the street and then all of his car parts reassemble and he turns into a robot.”
The N*E*R*D album is imminent, but as far as 2117, all Pharrell can hope for is that, as Louis XIII’s #IfWeCare hashtag underlines, the song survives—which would mean we did something right.
One thing is certain, at least, though, as P says not venomously, but matter-of-factly: “All those old fucks will die.”