Pharrell Williams’s 30 greatest songs – ranked!

It’s 20 years since his band NERD released their debut album – but the rapper-producer-singer-songwriter has been responsible for an avalanche of hits. As he and co-pilot Chad Hugo get inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, we count down Williams’s 30 greatest bangers

30 Child Rebel Soldier – Us Placer (2007)

Pharrell Williams’s career has thrown up several curveballs – a homage to XTC’s Andy Partridge on the Despicable Me 3 soundtrack, a Metallica remix that sounds like 90s hardcore rave – but this might be the most intriguing: Pharrell, Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco rhyming over The Eraser by Thom Yorke. Alas, the supergroup idea didn’t last long: a fascinating what if?

29 Kelis – Popular Thug (2001)

A lost classic from Kelis’s second album, which wasn’t released in the US: guest rap from Pusha T, slapping beats, reedy organ, great hook (“Make my record skip, make my record skip”) fantastic chorus. It was repurposed – with Nas replacing Pusha T – for the Neptunes’ Clones album, but the original still wins.

28 Tyler, the Creator ft Lil Uzi Vert and Pharrell Williams – Juggernaut (2021)

Pharrell’s only contribution to the uncompromisingly dark Juggernaut was a guest spot, rapping over the distorted beats and dive-bombing bass, but it was enough to spark rumours of a collaborative Tyler/Williams album. The rumours were untrue, but you can’t really blame people for wanting one: Juggernaut is that good.

27 NERD – Run to the Sun (2001)

The main lyrical preoccupations of NERD’s debut album are evident in the song titles – Lapdance, Rock Star, Am I High? – but Run to the Sun is something else: slick funk that sounds like a love song, but turns out to be a regret-filled paean to Williams’s ailing grandmother. Heartbreaking and danceable.

Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj at the 2016 MTV Video Music awards in New York.
Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj at the 2016 MTV Video Music awards in New York. Photograph: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

26 Ariana Grande ft Nicki Minaj – The Light Is Coming (2018)

A bold attempt to apply the WTF? factor of the Neptunes’ golden age productions to a huge pop star in the era of algorithms: jittery, glitchy beats, a distorted snatch of dialogue from a rightwing protest against Obamacare, a killer rap from Nicki Minaj.

25 Pharrell Williams – Angel (2006)

Williams has been dismissive of his flop debut solo album In My Mind (“I wrote those songs out of ego … there was no purpose”) and while it’s certainly no classic, it does contain one gem in Angel: infused with the spirit of old soul records, led by a rolling piano, blessed with a gorgeous melody.

24 Pharrell Williams – Happy (2013)

The eighth highest-selling single in UK history, Happy is hopelessly, perhaps irrevocably, overplayed: plenty of listeners would doubtless be delighted never to hear it again. But behind the familiarity lurks a fantastic pop song, its lyrical straightforwardness balanced by beautifully nuanced production that evokes 60s soul without sounding like an imitation.

23 Gwen Stefani – Hollaback Girl (2004)

Even on an album that featured productions from Dr Dre, André 3000, Dallas Austin and Jam and Lewis, the Neptunes’ work stood out: battering-ram drums, dive-bombing sub-bass, raw-sounding brass samples, an incongruously sweet acoustic guitar.

22 Lil Uzi Vert ft Pharrell Williams – Neon Guts (2017)

In the Neptunes’ pre-fame days, Williams wrote psychedelic sci-fi rhymes: a Virginia Beach friend remembered lyrics about “space coasters” and laser guns. There’s an echo of that early weirdness here: “I got a colourful aura,” he offers, “like I got neon guts.” And the beat is terrific: spacey synths over a super-stoned rhythm track.

21 Busta Rhymes ft Pharrell Williams – Light Your Ass on Fire (2003)

You could easily opt for Busta Rhymes’ other great Neptunes production, Pass the Courvoisier Part 2, but Light Your Ass on Fire’s cocky minimalism is what makes it: beyond the opening nod to Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express, there’s nothing but a drumbeat, clearly designed to sound incredible at immense volume.

20 NORE – Superthug (1998)

Williams had 90s chart success as a protege of Teddy Riley, but Superthug was the track that announced the arrival of the Neptunes as an utterly distinctive, disruptive voice in hip-hop, pushing a ferocious beat and a nagging, cyclical keyboard line to the forefront of the mix. Head-turning 24 years ago, it still sounds amazing.

19 NERD – Lapdance (2001)

Why NERD chose to re-record their debut album with a rock band is an enduring mystery. The original Europe-only electronic version is vastly superior, as demonstrated by Lapdance: the first take is stripped-down, ultra-catchy electronic funk that highlights Williams’s cool falsetto; the re-recording is a lumpy mess that sounds uncomfortably like nu-metal.

18 Nelly – Hot in Herre (2002)

Chuck Brown’s early go-go hit Bustin’ Loose is an old school hip-hop sampling staple used by everyone from Eric B And Rakim to LL Cool J, but no one ever deployed it quite as successfully as on Nelly’s multi-platinum, Grammy-winning summer of 2002 anthem, a highlight of the Neptunes’ Midas-touch years.

17 Mystikal ft Pharrell Williams – Shake Ya Ass (2000)

“I came here with my dick in my hand!” bellows Mystikal, which rather makes it sound as if he’s trying to start a party in an STD clinic. But in fairness, Shake Ya Ass – its backing track derived from James Brown’s Soul Power, Pharrell’s smooth chorus – could probably start a party anywhere.

16 Justin Timberlake – Rock Your Body (2002)

Both a fantastic single and a missed opportunity: what if Michael Jackson hadn’t been so ill-advised as to turn down the Neptunes songs that wound up on Justin Timberlake’s debut album in favour of the appalling gloop he dished up on 2001’s Invincible? His loss was the former boyband member’s credibility-boosting gain.

15 NERD – She Wants to Move (2004)

NERD’s second album Fly or Die was a mess: an album that couldn’t work out what it wanted to be. But it also contained the greatest example of their attempt to fuse rock and 21st century funk: wracked with frustrated lust, driven by frantic acoustic guitar, She Wants to Move is propulsive, preposterous and perfect.

14 Daft Punk ft Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers – Get Lucky (2013)

Along with Happy and the best-forgotten Blurred Lines, Get Lucky made Pharrell into pop’s dominant force in 2013. It also ensured Get Lucky’s wearying, ongoing ominipresence, but it got played to death for a reason, or rather two: its elegant update of disco and Pharrell’s seemingly effortless melody and vocal, both allegedly made up on the spot.

13 Earl Sweatshirt ft Vince Staples – Burgundy (2013)

It is less celebrated than the Neptunes’ gamechanging 00s beats, but the backing Williams devised for Burgundy is immense: the stumbling, lurching rhythm sounds unsteady on its feet; a chopped-up orchestral sample (from 80s Britfunkers Beggar and Co) blares out; voices shout, synths chaotically undulate. Queasy, head-spinning brilliance.

12 The Clipse – Mr Me Too (2006)

Even when the world’s biggest stars came calling for their beats, the Neptunes always seemed to hold back something special for local Virginia Beach duo the Clipse. You could pick virtually anything off their stunning second album, Hell Hath No Fury, but Mr Me Too’s weird cocktail of slinkiness and menace is particularly awesome.

Beyoncé in Austin Powers in Goldmember, the soundtrack of which features Work It Out.
Beyoncé in Austin Powers in Goldmember, the soundtrack of which features Work It Out. Photograph: New Line/Allstar

11 Beyoncé – Work It Out (2002)

The globe-swallowing success of opener Crazy in Love inevitably overshadowed the rest of Beyoncé’s debut album – unfairly so in the case of her brilliant debut solo single Work It Out, a knotty tapestry of funk samples paired with a vocal that could have been recorded in Alabama’s Fame Studios in the late 60s.

10 Snoop Dogg ft Pharrell Williams – Drop It Like It’s Hot (2004)

Even by the Neptunes’ platinum-plated early 00s standards, Drop It Like It’s Hot was huge: the most popular rap song of the decade according to Billboard. It was also a thrillingly audacious way to achieve huge crossover success, its backing almost entirely made up of white noise and the sound of tongues clicking.

9 Ol’ Dirty Bastard ft Kelis – Got Your Money (1999)

ODB’s life was spiralling out of control by the time of his second album, recorded piecemeal between jail sentences. But its single was an unalloyed triumph, framing his increasingly unhinged rapping (actually one of the album’s more coherent ODB vocals) with a skeletal funk bassline, lo-fi synth lines and a chorus that introduced Kelis to the world.

8 Britney Spears – I’m a Slave 4 U (2001)

There is something incredibly cheering about the Neptunes’ refusal to tone down their production style even when employed by a star as huge as Britney Spears: the brilliance of the Prince-influenced I’m a Slave 4 U lies in the tension between its pop melody and the off-key electronics in the background.

7 Snoop Dogg ft Pharrell Williams – Beautiful (2003)

Where that other classic Snoop/Williams collaboration, Drop It Like It’s Hot, is minimal and darkly funky, Beautiful is its polar opposite: busy and, in its own, very Snoop-esque way, lovestruck: the simple, Williams-sung chorus is just perfect, despite his later protestations that his vocal is “flat as fuck”.

6 Frank Ocean – Sweet Life (2012)

The highlight of Ocean’s second album Channel Orange set his jaded drawing of Ladera Heights’ moneyed denizens to a deceptively complex Williams backing, filled with subtle details: beneath the retro-soul electric piano and bass and thick harmonies lurk echoing voices, strange vocal loops and a fantastic horn arrangement.

5 Pharrell Williams ft Jay-Z – Frontin’ (2003)

Amid the dazzling pyrotechnic displays of the Neptunes’ productions, the funk guitar-driven Frontin’ minted a line in Williams solo tracks that rested less on jaw-dropping sonics than straightforwardly great songwriting rooted in R&B’s past, particularly the work of Curtis Mayfield, who he sounds remarkably like here.

4 Jay-Z ft Pharrell Williams – I Just Wanna Love U (Give It to Me) (2000)

Williams is famous for his “four-count starts” – there’s a 13-hour Spotify playlist dedicated to tracks featuring his trademark intros – but on I Just Wanna Love You, the Neptunes stuck the same stammering effect into every fourth bar of the guitar sample to ultra-catchy effect. Also features one of Williams’s best falsetto hooks: “I’m a hustler bay-by!”

Kendrick Lamar at Coachella in 2017.
Kendrick Lamar at Coachella in 2017. Photograph: Valérie Macon/AFP/Getty

3 Kendrick Lamar – Alright (2019)

Before it became an important track – adopted as a Black Lives Matter protest anthem – Alright was already an incredible one. Williams set Lamar’s optimism in the face of crushing adversity to a disorientating patchwork of jazz brass, luxurious harmony vocals and snapping drums: he also took care of the chorus, subsequently adapted into a chant of defiance.

2 The Clipse – Grindin’ (2002)

“The world is about to feel something they never felt before,” crows Williams on Grindin’, and he has a point. So minimal that the sudden appearance of a hi-hat pattern feels like an event, Grindin’ features a rhythm track that sounds like car doors slamming, an eerie drip of electronics as a hook – and that’s it. It’s bold, cocky and supremely powerful.

1 Kelis – Milkshake (2003)

It’s a close-run thing, but Milkshake represents the high-water mark of the Neptunes’ ability to turn risky, exploratory music into chart gold. It tears up the pop production rulebook: the rhythm is provided entirely by a single Egyptian darbuka drum, the synths fizz and blare at odds with Kelis’ vocal, the whole thing is borderline atonal, and it’s flat-out one of the weirdest-sounding records ever to make the Top 5. But it works perfectly as a single: it’s both impossibly hooky and an irresistible invitation to dance; it conjures up a humid, sexy atmosphere without succumbing to a solitary cliche. A masterpiece.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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