One of 2013’s greatest musical diversions was the two-horse race for the title of song of the summer–a designation that has acquired a surprising amount of significance. While lead artists Robin Thicke and Daft Punk surely benefited from the battle, the contest’s true victor was the only person to appear on both songs: singer-rapper-producer extraordinaire Pharrell Williams, winking and grinning his way through the flirty pop-soul of “Blurred Lines” and vocally floating over the shiny, funky riffs of “Get Lucky” (not to mention his presence on another Daft Punk track, “Lose Yourself to Dance”). The two blockbuster hits were the tentpoles supporting a larger creative renaissance for Williams, whose influence on music returned to levels he last glimpsed a decade ago as half of the groundbreaking production duo the Neptunes.
A successful solo single–“Happy,” from the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack–gained surprising amounts of traction at the end of the year and topped the Billboard Hot 100 by late February, and it’s from this position of unassailable commercial strength that Williams is releasing his second full-length solo album, GIRL. The album’s impressive guest list–Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus and Daft Punk, among others–functions as both a flash of Williams’ considerable Rolodex and the music industry’s tacit endorsement of his impending individual stardom. But the imposing star power wouldn’t matter without a spine of quality songwriting. Fortunately, Williams delivers. His deft hand for arrangement, eagerness to please and generosity with hooks leave GIRL gleaming from top to bottom. He is a giving and nimble composer, offering subtle variations on the album’s template of rich, dense pop, depending on the talent at hand.
A sterling collaboration with Timberlake, “Brand New,” highlights their dueling, fluttering falsettos, while a later Cyrus feature, “Come Get It Bae,” blushes with the slightest hint of blustery Southern charm. When left to his own devices, Williams plays the part of a boyish, excited potential lover and uses strutting guitar parts and rubbery bass lines to amplify his confidence.
When the album falters, it’s usually on the lyrical front. Williams has never been a particularly graceful wordsmith, instead skating by on his natural charm. True to form, GIRL contains its fair share of clunkers, led by this dreadful couplet from the brash “Hunter”: “Duck Dynasty’s cool and all/ But they got nothin’ on a female’s call.” Overlooking these transgressions may prove difficult for lyrically inclined listeners, but those who manage it can freely bask in some of the year’s most luxurious and benevolent pop music to date.
This appears in the March 17, 2014 issue of TIME.