Artist: Various Artists
Album: Hidden Figures: The Album
In Brief: The rare movie tie-in album that I enjoy both as a listening experience in and of itself, and as a strong reminder of key scenes in the film that inspired it. Despite a few moments that fall flat or don’t seem to relate directly to the film’s plot, Pharrell Williams did a pretty good job writing and arranging these songs, and picking the right female voices to bring most of them to life.
I don’t think I can overstate how much I enjoyed the movie Hidden Figures. I was pumped for it just from seeing in the first few seconds of the trailer that Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer were playing two of its lead characters. I would have shown up to watch those two act together in just about anything regardless of the plot. (Now that I’ve seen it and am convinced that Janelle Monaé has made the crossover from singer/songwriter to actress incredibly well, you can put her on that list, too.) Then I learned it was about African-American female mathematicians who existed in real life and who played a crucial role in the “Space Race” during the early 60s, despite the seemingly insurmountable odds against them ever being taken seriously by the mostly white men who dominated NASA and the sciences in general at the time, and I was like, “Sign me up.” I work for NASA in a roundabout way – not as a bigshot mathematician or anything, but as a web programmer who recalled seeing a bio of Katherine Johnson on a site I’d helped to design ages ago and thought, “Now there’s a story worth retelling.” I thought at the time that this film would appeal to more of a niche audience, so I was blown away at the response it got from the world at large in its opening weekend, and the Oscar nominations (for Best Picture, and for Spencer as Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Dorothy Vaughn) that it garnered as well. Normally a film can be an upbeat, feel-good, family-friendly experience, make tons of money, or be Oscar bait, but usually not all of those things at once. But I think what excited me the most was to see parents in the theater with us a few weeks later, who had brought their young daughters to see the film and were taking the time to quietly explain the significance of the events as they unfolded, making sure their children understood the impact of these women breaking the mold. It was one of those weird moments where I felt a sense of pride – not over anything that I personally had accomplished, of course – but just at seeing a dramatization of a part of our history not a lot of people had known about before, that sent the clear reminder to young women and to people of color: You can do these amazing things just as well as us white guys can, and some of us are sick and tired of others who look like us trying to hold you back. It was a breath of fresh air for me to see it (and it sort of felt like a personal act of defiance to do so on the day after our country had inaugurated a new President who doesn’t seem to be the biggest fan of intelligent and outspoken women, people of color, or science). I could go on and on about the reasons why I loved this film, but I’m not here to review the film; I’m here to review the soundtrack.
Now I don’t normally even bother listening to film soundtracks. It’s even more rare that I actually review one. Usually they’ll be an award-baiting pop song or two followed by a mostly instrumental score, or a compilation of previously recorded material (which is common for historical dramas set during any decade after pop music became a thing), or feel like a dumping ground for C-list artists whose songs can be loosely interpreted as “inspired by” the film, and weren’t good enough for those artists to keep them for their own albums. Only rarely do I hear music within a film that was recorded specifically for that film, and that makes enough of an impression on me that I willingly seek it out after leaving the theater. In the case of Hidden Figures, they tapped Pharrell Williams to compose and produce the soundtrack, and a few of the songs he came up with (some of which he sings, but most of which are sung by contemporary female R&B/soul/Gospel artists) fit so well into the scenes where they appear in the movie that I was actually fooled into wondering if those songs had been written and recorded in the early 60s. (I’m an idiot. Obviously the production techniques are too new for that to be the case, but it’s to Pharrell’s credit that he pulls off the throwback sound so well on a few of these tracks.) I will admit that it was a bit odd at first to hear Pharrell’s own voice front and center on the first few tracks, since the protagonists of this film are women and none of the female vocalists take the lead until the third track. But there was a lot about this story that he related to, having spent his youth as a nerdy African-American kid in Virginia, a state which was still segregated at the time Hidden Figures takes place. (I hope it’s OK to call Pharrell “nerdy”. He did name one of his bands N.E.R.D., after all.) Ultimately, I think he was a darn good choice. I haven’t listened to a ton of Pharrell’s music, personally, but it seems like everybody and their mother liked his song “Happy” (me included), and I get that same joyful vibe from a number of the songs that he penned here.
The downside to Hidden Figures is that while a few of its lyrics are on point and bring back vivid memories from the scenes they underscored in the film, there are several tracks that could mislead a listener who hadn’t seen the film into thinking it was mostly about romance. There is an important romantic story arc in the film as Katherine Johnson gets to know… well, the man she’d end up marrying and getting the last name Johnson from, so hopefully that’s not too big of a spoiler! But the main focus of the film is overcoming adversity, and proving with the irrefutable numbers and figures and leadership skills that these women provided, that prejudice has no place in the sciences. I get that sense from the album’s first track and a few of its more Gospel-inspired romps later on. And it’s possible that I was paying more attention to the dialogue than the background music in some key scenes (I really need to go back and watch this thing again when it comes out on DVD), but it feels like a stretch to say that a few of these songs strongly correlate to what happened in the movie. It’s most noticeable when Janelle Monaé finally gets her turn at the mic on two songs in the album’s back half. One seems a bit too shy and cutesy to really fit with either her fiery portrayal of Mary Jackson or her energetic on-stage persona. The other fits her pretty well, but doesn’t seem to relate to much of anything I can recall from the film. Aside from the issue of the lyrics not seeming to correlate to the plot, there are a few moments where the intensity of the subject matter doesn’t seem match the rather laid-back performance of a song, or where a vocalist seems to be reaching for a note that they don’t quite hit, which could be a byproduct of a song having an unorthodox chord progression. Taking it beyond the four chords of pop is something I admire in a good R&B/soul ballad, but only when the singer can really stick the landing. Perhaps there are some nuances of the genre that I’m simply not familiar with – I’ll admit upfront that this kind of music isn’t generally in my wheelhouse in terms of articulating myself about it intelligently in a review. But I come back to Hidden Figures a lot more than I thought I would after that first curious listen, and I figure a record that I replay this often deserves a full review. So keep in mind that this is just my barely-informed opinion. It’s music, not rocket science. (Sometimes it’s music about rocket science, but I digress.)
The opening track is definitely one of the film’s most iconic. If you’ve seen it, the slightly mischievous bassline and the snappy beat will probably bring back the mental image of Katherine having to run half a mile across the NASA campus just to use the “colored” bathroom. It was sort of played for laughs at first, but it was also a heartbreaking picture of how little the powers that be cared at the time to accommodate a non-white employee. (Apparently it didn’t quite didn’t happen that way in real life, but that’s another story.) Pharrell’s opening rhyme scheme is sheer brilliance: “Summertime in Virginia was a oven/All the kids eating ice cream with their cousins/I was studyin’ while you was playin’ the dozens/Don’t act like you was there when you wasn’t.” The melody feels like a modern take on the structure of a blues song, complete with a few horns and some Gospel-tinged backing vocals for flavor. The only thing that brings this song down slightly is when Pharrell repeats the same spoken word verse three times in the pre-chorus. It’s brilliantly written, with its boast of intellectual prowess: “If I stand still, I cannot get far/They want the moon, I’m on Mars.” But he really needs to change up the words a bit the second or third time through to avoid diminishing the payoff. Still, it’s an excellently written song overall, and considering that he got on Oscar nomination for a song from an animated film about an evil genius and his yellow minions a few years back, it was disappointing to not see this similarly infectious song from an otherwise critically acclaimed film among the list of the Best Original Song nominees this year.
While Pharrell’s second song is also a lot of fun, it doesn’t seem to tie into the movie as directly, and I kind of wish he’d placed it farther back in the album’s track listing, in order to bring some of the female voices up to the mic a little sooner. It’s an energetic, funk-pop sort of number, with a strong call-and-response hook, some rather assertive trumpet playing, and playful lyrics about how much a man seems to be falling all over himself in response to the good love of a strong woman. His approach here seems to be one of getting a crowd revved up, so I bet this would be a fun one to see him perform live. But it doesn’t remind me all that much of anything that happened in the movie. Katherine’s future husband Jim Johnson getting so smitten with her that he sticks his foot in his mouth in their awkward first meeting might have been the inspiration, but I can’t say for sure.
Man, this song is like a party on wheels. It kicks in immediately with its snare-heavy beat and its hand claps, and just chugs on through like an unstoppable freight train. It’s one of the most joyous songs I’ve heard in recent years. Lalah Hathaway takes the mic here, and out of the female vocalists featured on this project, she’s the one I knew the least about, but she impresses me the most out of any of them due to how well she commands my attention throughout. Of course Pharrell’s winning chorus melody is a big part of that – just like in “Happy”, he knows when to throw a minor chord into an otherwise major-key melody for maximum effect. Total gratitude and admiration for being rescued from a dire situation is the prevailing mood here, and the song isn’t shy about throwing in a few church-y references to make it clear that there’s a supernatural cause behind the victory being celebrated. I love the vulnerability shown in the second verse, when she sings: “Do you remember? I questioned how I feel/I asked you were you real at all?/And when you entered, you found the biggest wall/Said ‘Is that all?’, made it fall.” But my favorite part is probably the crowd-pleasing refrain that leads back from the bridge into the chorus: “When it feel this good, don’t ever let go!” That part gets me pumped every time. This song’s only three and a half minutes long, but I could easily listen to them vamping on it for several more.
Keeping the mood up is this bouncy R&B/pop song from Mary J. Blige. We’re back in cutesy love song territory here, as Blige extols the virtues of a special man who’s got her feeling the heat. The lyrics here go back and forth between charmingly flirtatious and annoyingly goofy, with the worst offender being the line, “My mind is carousel, that’s how he rides me.” Her vocal performance is reasonably strong, though I feel like the song ends a bit suddenly, just as she’s really starting to get into it. (I haven’t personally heard a lot of Mary J. Blige’s music, but given how she’s revered as pretty much the queen of her genre, I know she’s capable of bringing the house down.) The entire album is only just over half an hour long, now that I stop to think about it, and I kind of wish Pharrell had left space for the singers and musicians he pulled together to vamp a little longer on a few of these tracks; it would help give them a stronger identity.
This might be the most technically impressive song on the record, in terms of Pharrell’s ability to throw his influences into a blender and see what kind of a delicious genre-hopping smoothie he gets out of it. You’ve heard of math rock, right? Well, this song could be considered “Math Gospel”. The most striking aspect of the song – other than its fervent “Yes we can!” vocal hook that makes you wonder if the song began life as a theme song for Obama’s presidential campaign – is how its time signature subtly shifts from what sounds like 4/4 to 6/4 to 6/8 as Pharrell and his energetic backing vocalists transition from chorus to verse to bridge. I keep picturing the number 12 when I listen to this one, probably because that’s the one number you can count to that makes all of these variances in the beat sync up again. Pharrell proves all over again that he’s an ace at getting a crowd revved up with his fervent spoken-word tongue twister that leads into the chorus, and just when this all threatens to get a bit repetitive is where he switches up the mood entirely for the bridge, which comes back around to that spoken word one last time for an extra nudge of adrenaline right at the end. If you saw the film, you’ll probably remember this as the song that played while Dorothy Vaughn and her computer crew power-walked across the NASA campus to their new, de-segregated digs.
Next in the all-star vocal lineup is Alicia Keys, who lends only a slight hint of her ivory-tinkling skills to this otherwise rather minimal, beat-driven song. Here’s where I have to admit that I have a love/hate relationship with Pharrell’s obsession with the 808 drum. Sometimes he seems to like just leaving out there almost completely bare, relying on little other than that hollow, sorta-fuzzy sound to carry the weight of a song. It’s a seductive way to start a song, but eventually you’ve got to put a bit more juice into it, and this song never quite gets there, which I feel like is a bit of a disservice to Keys’ talent. I wouldn’t mind it if this was intended to be a slow-burner, but the repeated cries of “Whoo whoo!” in between some of her lyrics seem to imply more of an upbeat good time being had than the song actually gives us. Also, the lyrics mix metaphors to the point of ridiculousness here, first telling us how the apple is the best of all fruits and then making reference to Adam and Eve being tempted, but somehow spinning that temptation as a positive thing? Then you have Pharrell’s apparent favorite lyrical standby of comparing being in love to being on fire, which in this case leads to funny smells when um… your apple pie burns to a crisp in the oven? Yeah, I’m not really clear on what they’re going for here. Food (and its implied seductive qualities) plays an important part in the film’s romantic subplot, so I guess I see how this one ties into the story, but it’s still a bit of a stretch.
7. Isn’t This the World
Now this one feels like it was intended to be more of a laid-back ballad, and it does a pretty good job in that department, even if I think it’s a rather odd way to introduce Janelle Monaé into the mix. The song is certainly well-intentioned, expressing a wish to end things like hunger and homelessness and discrimination and basically anything mean that humans ever did to each other. “We have to change our selfish ways/No matter who else does” is probably the most compelling line of the song. Most of it’s a bit glurgy if I’m honest with myself, but the unorthodox melody helps it to stand out from what could have otherwise been an unforgivably saccharine, straightforward pop song. Her voice is so gentle and sweet here, and the song has a sense of wide-eyed innocence and optimism to it, that I picture her holding the rim of her dress and curtsying at a high school dance, which isn’t really an image that matches with her portrayal of Mary Jackson or with my (admittedly limited) exposure to Monaé’s music in the past. She’s not bad at this, so don’t get me wrong. I just think she should have been brought in on some of the more fiery songs earlier in the record before showing us her gentler side – but don’t worry, she gets another chance a few tracks later.
8. Crystal Clear
OK, so Pharrell’s sung lead on three songs so far, and I liked what he did with each of them, but I’ve gotta say we really didn’t need a fourth. He really struck out with this one, which is a superficially enjoyable pop/soul sort of song with a slight hint of Beach Boys bounce to it (or, more likely, whatever pioneers of the genre first influenced the Beach Boys), that finds Pharrell making an absolutely painful vocal choice every time he comes back around to the chorus hook. This is where the whole “unorthodox melody needs a singer who can sell it” thing really comes into play, as just does not sound sure of himself when he lands on the word “clear”. it comes out all slurred, like “cleahhhhh…”, and it’s like he’s halfway between two different notes and can’t quite decide. Beyond that jarring flaw, the song feels unnecessary because it’s once again rather vague in terms of how it ties into the movie. Other than a brief mention of gazing up at some constellations, it’s a rather generic expression of someone’s love being so refreshing that you could live on that alone. Why do I feel like 75% of these songs are about maybe 25% (and I’m being generous with that estimate) of what the movie’s actually about?
Janelle Monaé is back for round two, and if you were hoping for something with a little more attitude, this oughta whet your whistle. There’s a strong funk/rock vibe to this song, which makes it a little easier to picture Monaé strutting her stuff in a tuxedo, and I’ll freely admit this is the one time where I don’t really care that the song seems to have squat to do with the movie. (Especially once she starts sprinkling in a little Spanish and saying someone’s intense love for her has her “on fuego”. We’re really getting off-topic now, folks.) And we’ve got a ton of the classic “whoo!”s and “ah!”s and so forth that Pharrell likes to repeat in the background of his songs ad nauseum. For the most part, this whole track is a three-minute vamp that has nothing to do with anything, unless you count the line “Hot dang, you burn my kisser/Coming out the water like a Soviet missile.” Remember the hilarious bit where Katherine “proved” to her superiors that she wasn’t a Russian spy? I wish there could have been an entire song about that.
10. I See a Victory
Several tracks thus far have had strong Gospel influences, but this song fully commits to it, bringing in Kim Burrell, an actual pastor in addition to being a Gospel singer, to close out the album flanked by a full-fledged choir. (And, somewhat distractingly in this case, the 808 drums, which drag the song down ever so slightly – it really calls for more energetic live percussion.) There are times when I feel like straightforward religious language can lose a bit of the artistry and the potential for a songwriter to have some fun with the phrasing, but Pharrell and co-writer Kirk Franklin (maybe you Gospel music fans have heard of him? I kid, I kid) did a darn good job with the wordplay here: “So I tallied all my losses/And I turned them into lessons/And what seemed to be less/I turned them into blessings.” Church culture was an important part of the three leading ladies’ lives in the movie, and while I don’t remember it being explicitly commented on in the film, I’m always encouraged to see a portrayal of brilliant scientists that doesn’t imply a direct contradiction between their faith and the facts. Too many people see those things as mutually exclusive, y’know? Like “Surrender”, I’d have been happy with this one going on for several more minutes – that last energetic cry from the choir once again seems premature at the three-minute mark, which is all the more glaring since it’s the end of the album. But it’s certainly a hell of an… excuse me, heaven of an encouraging note to end on.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Isn’t This the World $.75
Crystal Clear $0
I See a Victory $1.50
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