How Pharrell Expanded Black Identity

10 years on, a look at what ‘In My Mind’ accomplished

by Julian Kimble

Icons are avatars of excellence, effigies for certified greatness. Pharrell Williams — the musical polymath, the fashion maven and walking enterprise — is an irrefutable icon. As one-half of the legendary production team The Neptunes, he became one of the most sought-after musical minds in pop. In recent years, he’s scored the Oscars alongside Hans Zimmer, found ubiquity with “Happy,” and spent four seasons as a judge on The Voice. But a decade ago, Pharrell was an ascendant cult hero.

His 2006 debut, In My Mind, was supposed to be his next artistic triumph after 2003’s “Frontin’” showed his potential as a solo artist to be as promising as his work as a producer. While In My Mind nabbed a 2007 Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album, it fell short of its lofty expectations — it failed to produce the hits expected from someone who, at one point, was behind 43 percent of the songs on U.S. radio. Pharrell might not have been ready to carry an album-length project on his own, but In My Mind ultimately succeeded in pushing his rebellious aesthetic in front of a larger audience that desperately needed to see it.

Since the late ’90s and early aughts, when definitive Neptunes tracks like “Superthug” and Clipse’s “Grindin’” countered rap's prevailing sound with both celestial intricacies and raw minimalism, Pharrell’s work positioned him against the status quo. He proudly anointed himself a “nerd” and skateboarded past anyone ogling him in bewilderment. And his comfort in his own skin reverberated: Above all, it spoke to black youth looking to override cultural boundaries and expectations about who and how they could be. In My Mind’s victory, and Pharrell’s greatest non-musical contribution, is in creating a space for unique representations of blackness in popular culture.

Despite fetishization, appropriation, and dissection, blackness endures in America, yet it has never been fully understood or appreciated outside of the black community. Instead of being treated as a mosaic, blackness is viewed and presented as a monolith. It’s been scrutinized and threatened so aggressively that we, as black people, feel compelled to guard it with equal force. For adolescents, this can make blackness feel like a constraint, because anything outside the margins of what’s deemed acceptable is misunderstood. On the remix to Lupe Fiasco’s 2006 skater anthem “Kick Push,” Pharrell spoke to his own parents' confusion over his indifference towards archetypal “black validity”: “Identity crisis, they scrunched their facial / How we both black and our kid is biracial?” During his formative years, the period where you’re expected to pick a lane, Pharrell refused to. And as he told Complex in 2013, he paid the price for it: “I got called ‘Oreo’ as a kid because I was black, but I hung with white boys and skated,” he said. “I had black friends, and I noticed they were into the same things, but a lot of them still chose a lane.”

When you’re young, your perception of the world and who you’re supposed to be is shaped by the examples in front of you. In the pre–social media era, there were fewer outlets to show black kids the assortment of ways black people exist in the world. Pharrell grew up challenging what it meant to be black, and he prospered greatly from it. As he moved out of the producer’s shadow (the dude in the straw hat and dog tags in Mystikal’s 2000 video for “Shake Ya Ass”) and into the spotlight (the charismatic frontman of N.E.R.D., his own post-adolescent garage band), he echoed the gospel that there’s no one way to be black.

The black experience is far too nuanced for anyone to feel the need to wedge themselves into conventional notions of what it should be. The rise of Pharrell’s star during the early-to-mid-2000s meant more people becoming familiar with, and relating to, his individuality. This also meant assurance for black kids who had The Strokes’ discography mixed in with their assortment of Jay Z CDs, or whose hidden passion for skateboarding rivaled their public love of basketball. Pharrell railed against conventional definitions of blackness as fiercely as he did musical limitations, which made his fans feel like someone understood and stood for them. Leading up to In My Mind’s release, Pharrell had become versatile enough to pull off a streetwear relic like the BAPE hoodie or go high-fashion while gallivanting around Paris as he did in Mariah Carey’s “Say Somethin’” video. At the same time, he had become influential enough to have people following his lead, stylistically. Pharrell blew up in contrast to the norm, and In My Mind was supposed to catapult his phenomenon to the next plateau.

In My Mind entered the Billboard 200 at the third slot and plummeted in subsequent weeks. Its lead single, “Can I Have It Like That,” which featured fellow future Voice coach Gwen Stefani, felt stale. The lone single to resonate was the Snoop Dogg–assisted “That Girl,” which built on the fluid, hit-making rapport the two worked up on Snoop’s 2004 album, R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta): The Masterpiece. Even Pharrell looks back at his solo debut with remorse (in 2014, he admitted to GQ that it had “no purpose”) — but he shouldn’t. In My Mind’s commercial underperformance didn’t make him any less iconic, and there's plenty to appreciate in the way the album celebrates his transition via clumsy but grandiose shittalk.

“Lil Skateboard, he too grown, ridin’ up and down Collins in that new two-tone,” he gloats on “Can I Have It Like That." After dubbing himself “part Howard Hughes” on “How Does It Feel?” he dismisses his critics: “He dresses insane, but his music admire / Ask Anna Wintour from Vogue and Esquire / And Vanity Fair...” Pharrell took great pride in becoming “cool” personified, from the depths of early blogs and forums to the front pages of the most reputable glossy magazines. With In My Mind, he held the doors of self-confidence and self-expression ajar for fellow “weird niggas,” making it not only acceptable, but actually cool, to be that. The true heroism of Pharrell’s art is that it inspired others to battle monolithic perceptions of blackness. Direct acolytes like Tyler, The Creator have embraced Pharrell’s maverick auteur approach, from music to fashion to lifestyle, cementing how instrumental Pharrell has been in broadening the definition of blackness.

Pharrell never chose a lane; he created his own. It’s a zone where youthful curiosity breeds renegade creativity. But, more importantly, it’s where its inhabitants are free to define their blackness as they choose. This doesn’t mean ordaining themselves “The New Black,” as Pharrell erroneously did in a 2014 conversation with Oprah, because this is not a transcendent space — it’s merely one that empowers black youth to embrace their eccentricities. In My Mind marked Pharrell's grand entrance into this realm, which has now become popular. Take a look around: The kids who were labeled misfits, as he was, are now the norm.