If the mention of Fight Club evokes thoughts of secrecy and keeping one’s mouth shut, then the name “Pharrell Williams” produces the opposite. His intent and follow-through warrants a reaction, and he wants it from you as bad as you want to give it. To call him a Renaissance man would be a vast understatement – as the 41-year-old, multifaceted creator delves into enough mediums with enough people that using singularity as a modifier wouldn’t be correct. In today’s world, the more success a person seems to have, the more contempt they endure. But somehow, Williams has remained “cool” while also being everywhere. How? Look no further than The 10 Commandments of Pharrell’s Success.
1. Thou shalt listen to those you collaborate with.
His list of collaborators range from Hans Zimmer to Takashi Murakami and Miley Cyrus to Zaha Hadid – the first woman ever awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize. In terms of fashion, Pharrell turned to UNIQLO as a chance to spread his i am OTHER message and its Creative Director, NIGO. “NIGO really took his time and really vetted the proper fabrics so there was just a high quality control there that I really trusted,” Pharrell told us when speaking about his collaboration with the brand. We undoubtedly live in an age where collaboration equates hype – and inevitably those looking to capitalize on the resale market – but Williams seems to understand that two heads are better than one. He went on to say, “I want my collaborators to be the best at what they do. I usually try to collaborate with masters because they are willing to try something different. And I know in the process, because they are masters, I will learn something.”
2. Thou shalt be diverse, but not over extended.
Pharrell has the uncanny ability to make us think he has bitten off more than he can chew, only to continually surprise us with new projects and inevitably leaving a bevy of accomplishments in his wake. Of his various projects, Details noted, “Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream, fine art sculptures shown at Art Basel, the Tate, and Versailles, jewelry and glasses for Louis Vuitton, his i am Other YouTube channel, a judging gig on the new competition show Styled to Rock, UJAM a cloud-based music-composing-for-the-masses site, Bionic Yarn which makes high-end fabrics from recycled plastics, and a line of chairs shown at the Galerie Perrotin in Paris.” With the access and certainly the capital to dabble in multiple arenas, Williams hasn’t lost sight of what allows him such creative freedoms. “Music will always be my first love,” Williams told W Magazine. “But the one thing I’ve learned is that this life is a movie and I am a cocreator. It’s a big movie, and there’s a lot of creativity going on. As long as I play my part, it won’t be over for quite a while.”
3. Thou shalt have something of your own.
When his YouTube channel i am OTHER launched in May of 2012, many couldn’t see the value in him delving into the digital medium. Pharrell has always been a master curator, so the notion that he was giving a proper spotlight to those he deemed “thinkers, innovators and outcasts” shouldn’t be all that surprising. The true beauty is that he put himself out there as a champion of him and his colleagues’ work, and made it clear he wasn’t merely just attaching his name as a token figurehead. As Ad Age noted at the time, “Among YouTube’s coming 100 or so new professionally produced ‘channels’ are a host of headline-grabbing celebrity names, including Madonna, Ashton Kutcher, Shaquille O’ Neal, Jay Z and Rainn Wilson. But how much these channels actually get from their stars beyond name recognition is going to vary — from some involvement to very little at all.” Additionally, Williams’ move could have potentially resulted in millions of dollars of income thanks to YouTube revenue streams coming from things like Content ID, sponsorship and merch annotations.
4. Thou shalt recognize failures – even if they’re internally-based.
While far from a commercial bomb (having sold over 400,000 copies and being nominated for Best Rap Album at the Grammys in 2007 ), Pharrell still considered his album In My Mind a personal and professional failure. In speaking with GQ he said, “I wrote those songs out of ego. Talking about the money I was making and the by-products of living that lifestyle. What was good about that? What’d you get out of it? There was no purpose. I was so under the wrong impression at that time.” He continued, “The failure of In My Mind was the universe saying, ‘Look, you have a voice, you have an opportunity. What are you going to do with this?’”
5. Thou shalt make things accessible.
Look no further than his collaboration with UNIQLO or his planned venture with adidas as proof that Pharrell understands that items and products he attaches his name to don’t necessarily mean they have to be exclusive or cost an arm and a leg. With fame comes the means to afford the unthinkable, but his affluence hasn’t affected his relationship with both the marketplace and his fan base.
6. Thou shalt reinvent.
It started with a question: Can you make denim out of recycled ocean plastic? That far-reaching and outside-the-box thinking was at the heart of he and G-Star’s intentions to do something both environmentally conscious as well as fashion-forward. As Forbes noted, “To make Raw For The Oceans happen, G-Star had to turn its entire supply chain upside down. Instead of purchasing fabrics from mills, the company had to go all the way back to the raw materials. That meant working with outfits like Bionic Yarn (which Pharrell owns), Parley for the Oceans and the Vortex Project, which finds new ways to extract plastic from the water.” In an interview with WWD Williams said, “Fashion is certainly a huge part of everybody’s lives. You wear it every day and for some people it’s a status symbol, or a statement of how much they have spent on clothes, or it’s a means of expressing their identity and who they are. We [Bionic Yarn and G-Star Raw] are trying to infiltrate the entire spectrum of fashion, high-end and low. It’s a part of sustainability and the cause is to never throw anything [plastics and trash] into the ocean again.”
7. Thou shalt recognize that “the same is lame.”
While he has enjoyed success in a variety of mediums, he still personifies and carries the torch for the underdog – recognizing that with each new venture, he’s undoubtedly facing an uphill battle. Staying complacent is not in Williams’ DNA. “We actually live in a world where a lot of people pick archetypes: By the time you’re 20 you’re like, ‘I’m a painter, and this is what I do every day,’ or ‘I’m a writer, and this is what I do,’ or ‘I’m a culinary artist,’” Pharrell told us. “The last time I checked, when you’re a painter, you also eat food, you also watch television, you also read books. You don’t just need to be in a box. ‘The Same Is Lame.’ What makes you different is what makes you special. Like snowflakes and human beings: both super cool, but not the same.” He’s proved that you don’t have to focus on one thing to be great, nor should you limit oneself to complacency in the face of expanded opportunities.
8. Thou shalt understand the power of good visuals.
It’s hard to imagine that Williams’ infectious song “Happy” wasn’t an instant hit, but as the film Despicable Me 2 blew up at the box office, “Happy” seemed to register in the court of public opinion somewhere between “suitable” and “alright.” Months later, Williams realized that “Happy” needed a visual beyond Gru and the world was introduced to a first of its kind “24-hour music video” that The New York Times would call “punishment-level glee.” The same “visual” strategy was also employed for “Blurred Lines” – as up to that point Robin Thicke hadn’t had a hit on radio. This marked the second time director Diane Martel and Pharrell joined together for a music video project involving two differently rated versions.
9. Thou shalt work with the best.
Pharrell has famously said in the past, “I know my limits, and I’m not anywhere near it.” His work ethic is notorious, but so too are his list of collaborators who have impressive pedigrees of their own. While we’ve come to think of “collaborations” as a showy display of a cultural impresario injecting their personality onto another brand, Williams seems to choose those that he has mutual respect for so that there’s actual give and take.
10. Thou shalt harness the power of controversy.
During an early listening session of G I R L in London, Pharrelll insinuated that the album was “an attempt to eliminate what he sees as an understandable degree of uncertainty over what his attitude to women actually is.” His thought process was heavily influenced by the controversy surrounding the lyrics and accompanying visuals for Robin Thicke’s breakout hit, “Blurred Lines.” He went on to say, “There’s an imbalance in society, in my opinion,” he says, “and it’s going to change. A world where 75 percent of it is run by women – that’s a different world. That’s gonna happen, and I want to be on the right side of it when it does.”