Prior to the release of Ariana Grande’s Sweetener on August 17, one of the album’s central tracks was already at the top of online discussions. It had slowly trickled out that Beyoncé had once recorded a version of Ari's “R.E.M.,” instead titling it “Wake Up,” for her self-titled surprise opus in 2013, originally intending for the album to be doo-wop centric. Holding her own candle to Queen Bey’s, Grande also executes her version with her own magical touch. Through this, Pharrell alchemised a case of a song being good no matter whose hands it ends up in, thanks to strong producing and songwriting.
Looking back at Pharrell’s discography for his band N.E.R.D., for himself as a solo artist, and for his peers, many would go straight to his signature fusion of R&B-bounce with horns, majorette drums, and a Virginia synthesized-twist on pop and rock. Hidden beneath that overarching hip-hop sound though is a dreamier side, one obsessed with floating through love and societal existence, in a cerebral state of mind.
His first sign of embracing the dream-pop side of his musicality exists in N.E.R.D.’s “Provider” from their 2001 debut album In Search Of. The first line, “woke up, I had the same clothes on I had last night,” is delivered in a forcibly psychedelic manner, a style now perfected by Childish Gambino. With an acoustic guitar strumming in the background, Pharrell’s voice trudges along in juxtaposed fashion, drifting at the paces of the “ah huh’s” within the hook.
Although “Provider” didn’t gain traction stateside due to its heavier offering in the U.K., Pharrell’s featured roles on others’ hits would solidify his sound as top-notch. With Pharrell’s music, there’s always a lightness that comes. For the men, there’s an airy braggadociousness exuding their inner thoughts on what satisfies masculinity. The examples extend wide: The triumphant horns fueling Busta Rhymes asking “don’t this shit make a nigga wanna jump, jump” on “Pass The Courvoisier Pt II” or the falsetto, Marvin Gaye-styled crooning on JAY-Z’s “Excuse Me Miss.” Through this, Pharrell has also showcased his knack for having one word drive the momentum of a production, whether that be the “yeah-yeah-ya-yeah-yeah’s” floating on Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful” or the decrescendoing “oh-oh-oh-o-oh-oh-oh-o’s” of Robin Thicke’s “Wanna Love You Girl.”
As Pharrell embarked on his solo start as a lead artist, it became clear with his songwriting that he could draft love stories while occupying the dream state. There’s “Frontin’,” a song that brought the titular word to the forefront of lingo due to the production’s funky groove. On “Frontin’,” there’s a lucid bridge of frenetic ad-libs before JAY-Z’s guest verse, which feature “oh’s.” A rarity in this collection of Pharrell’s catalogue is his 2006 single featuring Kanye West, “Number One.” Here, both artists sound as if they’re hovering in a shuttle in a faraway galaxy, a style more closely resembling 'Ye post-“Stronger.” The song best represents N.E.R.D’s aptly-titled label, Star Trek Entertainment.
When Pharrell returned to the No. 1 spotlight of the Billboard Hot 100 (and worldwide) with 2013’s “Happy” for the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack, it reflected how Pharrell’s infectious production has always spread positivity. There’s a sense of tranquility when listening to the work offered from Pharrell. This energy of combining the sounds of love vocally and sonically is what drives the parent album of “Happy,” GIRL, into full force. Even the titles alone, “Gush” and “Gust of Wind,” emote this idea of habitating a dream state. “Come Get It Bae” represents the sense of longing for affection, a fixation on the “Marilyn Monroe” and “It Girl” of his life.
On “R.E.M.,” both women discuss the men in their lives being “such a dream to me.” Lyrically, the song's beauty falls in meeting your soulmate during a dream. It's in both Beyoncé and Ariana Grande’s versions that we hear vocal maturity within their resonance. There’s a believability of growth, women blossoming into stronger and more confident lovers. This is allowed by the slow, loopy production where each singer’s voice has the time and minimalism to be showcased rather than buried in the production.
When examining why each singer would have selected “R.E.M.” for their projects, it’d make sense they’d use Pharrell’s ears and experiences to drive their points home. For Beyoncé, she recorded her self-titled LP after giving birth to Blue Ivy and navigating parenthood for the first time with JAY-Z. As with the rest of the self-titled LP, “Wake Up (R.E.M.)” follows the arc of The Carters’ sextracurriculars, leading the conception of Blue, who ends up crying at the end. For Ariana Grande, she hits the nail on the head with “I’m tryna turn two single people into a couple,” as she’s now engaged to Pete Davidson, the revolving point of Sweetener.
Their methods of delivery are different, however. Beyoncé purrs like a, well, Kitty Kat at her beginning, before subsiding to a lullaby-like state. This highlights her ability to change attitudes within one song, at first having a frontin’ facade before entering a comfortable position to confess something. Grande, on the other hand, is slow at confessing a secret she's obviously been dying to tell. The production of “R.E.M.” is selfless enough that it still allows her to add her sweetness charm to the words. Their “don’t want to wake up’s” even contrast: Beyoncé is more breathy at a higher octave, instead placing more emphasis on her “can you believe’s,” while Ariana goes the deeper and richer route on the “wake up’s,” ultimately harmonizing with herself in a way in which it sounds as if she’s instructing herself to do so.
Fellow pop critic Richard S. He mentioned on Twitter how Ariana Grande’s Sweetener is an example of ASMR pop and I couldn’t have agreed more. ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) is all about the senses and experiencing a tingly feeling of euphoria. It’s more complex of a feeling than can be described for sake of word count, but that’s the revolving gist as played out on Sweetener. The first single, “no tears left to cry,” is therapeutic with a bell tinkle underscoring the chorus. “God is a woman”—although trap&B—highlights the feeling of a touch, its video set also featuring clouds and the sky. The deep cut “goodnight n go”—which is a reworking of Imogen Heap’s dream-synthpop masterpiece—also constitutes this vibe of not wanting to escape bliss.
For his contributions to Sweetener, Pharrell delivered on his signature midtempo brand. On the title track and “successful,” he gives Grande room to go full-on R&B in a more relaxed tone, one that doesn’t force a bass-heavy beat to emphasis the direction. Aside from Beyoncé and Grande, Pharrell has showcased a knack in providing this sound for other women: SWV’s “Use Your Heart” and Kelis’ “Get Along With You,” both songs expressing a deep desire to understand the one who’s loved.
“R.E.M.” serves as a standout in recent music because its encapsulated by the history of Pharrell’s production. It’s one of his most sharp efforts of many, and if we’re not paying attention it could have a say in the direction pop and R&B has in the future. One “R.E.M.” fan could only believe in such a dream.
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