The Case for Working Relaxed

I’ve long considered Pharrell Williams and Kanye West two sides of the same coin. Pharrell, the zenned out, laid back, happy-go-lucky, type of artist (reminiscent of Rick Rubin in how relaxed he is). Kanye is the polar opposite — manic, outspoken, angry, upset type of artist. Some might say that there would be no Kanye without Pharrell (Yeezy has said this himself), but I don’t think that’s true.

Please keep in mind that I don’t know either of these guys personally, and that I’m just judging based on impressions from their personas.

There’s no doubt Pharrell is a pioneer. Music would not sound the same without the Neptunes and N.E.R.D. He influenced fashion with BBC and Bape. He’s done some amazing stuff. His work with Daft Punk on Get Lucky is great. I fux with the N.E.R.D albums, particularly that one track, Breakout. (So great!)

And yet in the back of my head, I feel like Kanye did so much more because he went a lot harder with what he was working with. Kanye’s journey is still fortunate, but clearly Ye had to struggle a lot more throughout. Putting in years of production work before getting signed as a rapper on Roc-A-Fella. Even then, having to fund his own first music video to get Roc-A-Fella’s support as he was about to drop College Dropout. Pharrell had two very successful groups pretty early in his career, one of Kanye’s failed (the Go Getters) while his other sorta succeeded (Konman Productions became G.O.O.D. Music). Through G.O.O.D Music, Kanye introduced John Legend, Kid Cudi, and Big Sean to the world and took Pusha T’s solo career to that next level.

Then again, Pharrell helped make those great Clipse tracks and Jay Z tracks that we love. Pharrell also went through his fair share of struggles, I’m sure — In My Mind gave us that crazzzzzy Ye x Pharrell track, Number One. (Listening to that as I write this, and it’s still so good! Maybe even better than when I first heard it.) But overall it flopped, and so did his solo artist career. Must’ve been tough.

In hindsight, I don’t think Ye is necessarily more innovative than Pharrell though. I just appreciate Kanye for his courage. Ye plays to win, to be number one. I don’t think Pharrell plays to compete, he just does it because he loves making art — music, fashion, design. Pharrell rides the wave very well. Kanye rides waves too (as he has said before, “There is no sport without the wave, so I have to wait for it. If the waves are high, then we’re gonna have a fun day. If the waves are low, then you just stay on the beach.”) but he’s not afraid going against the current. Pharrell just wants to make clothes — independently or with major backing, but Kanye only wants to make clothes on a world stage.

I respect them both immensely, but I’ve long since been a Kanye fan in my heart. I’ve long made the case for Kanye to my mom while she would like Pharrell a lot more (“He’s more humble”). I would deliberately watch Kanye’s Yeezus era interviews to rattle me up and make me angry, which made me want to work. It worked, and I was focused a lot of the time I was working, but I was also constantly dissatisfied with my own output and work ethic. Not happy with where I was at. Not being able to enjoy the process. I was able to produce more work, but I didn’t really enjoy the process of it. In hindsight, that kinda defeats the purpose.

In my mind, Pharrell is so much more digestible, so much less antagonizing, and so much more low-key. He almost feels too vanilla. I used to hate that about him, but that shouldn’t be held against Pharrell. He’s not being fake. That’s actually just who he is and how he decides to carry himself. I’ve grown to actually appreciate it a lot, because self-control is a skill and it also shows huge self control. I can relate to it, because I’m not super aggressive all the time — by default I’m probably less competitive and more relaxed, less solo and more collaborative. I like to be liked and I like making people feel at ease, but Kanye wants to challenge people.

And in writing this now, I realized Pharrell’s journey wasn’t that much easier than Kanye’s. If I were Pharrell, I probably would have felt threatened by Kanye’s meteoric rise and production work, but Pharrell loved it. (Here’s Pharrell listening to one of my favorite Kanye songs, Never Let Me Down. What a great, genuine, reaction. I want myself to react like that to friends’ successes moving forward.)

Pharrell’s journey seems like much less of a roller coaster. A lucky break getting discovered in high school by Teddy Riley and plugged into the industry. Great bands and bandmates. But I’m sure I probably just don’t know about it yet, I haven’t done the research I have with Kanye.

There’s a difference between complacency and comfort, and being relaxed. You can work super hard, venture out of your comfort zone, and still be relaxed. Still be level headed. And, when you’re relaxed, you ironically might produce better work than if you were all uptight and rigid.

I first stumbled on this idea a couple of years ago, when I read Bill Murray’s advice on relaxing yourself to get the best work done:

You have to remind yourself that you can do the very best you can when you’re very, very relaxed, no matter what it is, whatever your job is. The more relaxed you are, the better you are. That’s sort of why I got into acting. I realized the more fun I had, the better I did. I thought, well, that’s a job I could be proud of.

Raj Raghunathan, author of If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? says in an interview with The Atlantic:

There are expectations that if you achieve some given thing, you’re going to be happy. But it turns out that’s not true. And a large part of that is due to adaptation, but a large part of it also is that you see this mountain in front of you and you want to climb over it. And when you do, it turns out there are more mountains to climb.   

I’m not sure I have the energy or emotional capacity to be like Kanye all the time. I find the Pharrell (or Rick Rubin) approach more interesting, relaxed but focused and accepting facts and riding the wave when it’s there. Look, I’m not saying I’m not going to start my own waves and trying to see them take off. But I’m going to start sparks and waves, and not try to predict the forest fire or tsunami. Just do it and then on to the next one, or ride this one as it blows up. That’s it.

In my muay thai class, I was learning to kick a couple of weeks ago. I would freeze before I kicked — make sure I got my stance and sequencing properly — but the teacher said just to go through it all in one fluid motion. Don’t even think about it. Relax, and do it. And that was the key. I could feel my kicks getting stronger and hitting harder. I didn’t have to rush my kick or force it. I just had to relax.

I’m still going to work hard, just differently. In fact, I’m going to work even harder, but without any of the stress or rage. Quiet, focused, intensity, and a lot of friendliness and good vibes.

It’s easier to be angrier, but it’s more effective to be more relaxed. Which is why I’m no longer going to use caffeine.

Goals without expectations, and not forcing anything. Just being real. Relaxed. Doing more and thinking with my hands.