To imagine Williams off anyone's radar is difficult, especially for those of us raised on MTV. For 12 years, he helped reinvent the sound of R&B and hip-hop as part of the Neptunes, combining stripped-down, sexed-up funk with contagious pop hooks. Williams became notorious for appearing in the videos for the hits he helped create—there have been more than 120 of them since 2000—singing choruses in his trademark falsetto alongside Jay-Z, Madonna, and Justin Timberlake. (The tag “feat. Pharrell” became a staple of chart-topping songs throughout the aughts.)
Although Williams now lives in Miami, all three members of N.E.R.D still identify as poor childhood friends from Virginia Beach who unexpectedly made it big, or, as Haley puts it, “three lucky-ass dudes.” Williams says, “I never thought N.E.R.D was going to become this big thing. I didn't think 10 years later we would be doing interviews and shit. If you've seen the type of poverty that I've seen, you never get used to this stuff.”
Humility from the guy who once rapped, “Her ass is a spaceship I want to ride”? Thankfully, this grown-up version of N.E.R.D hasn't meant completely abandoning the pomp and swagger it takes to write a club banger. To wit, a video posted on the blog for Billionaire Boys Club, the name of Williams' clothing label, shows Williams surveying a packed, sweaty crowd inside an afterparty for the Monaco Grand Prix. At least 30 bottles of Cristal are carried over to his table—a gift from a very wealthy friend—when the DJ announces the debut of Nothing's first single, “Hot-n-Fun,” a bass-heavy come-on featuring Nelly Furtado, and one of the album's few remnants of old-school N.E.R.D.
Back at the shoot, Williams stands shirtless in the middle of an empty room with tall, white walls. When someone pokes fun at his slight belly—his usually toned stomach lacks noticeable definition—he says, “One day, I'm too skinny. The next, I'm too fat. I can't win.” He puts on a fur headpiece, and, as if to refute the notion that an older, less vain, more political Pharrell might have lost his edge, he yells, “I'm a soul brother now. All the white bitches, get naked! I repeat: all the W-H-I-T-E bitches, get naked!” For a minute, we think they might.