As part of the production duo The Neptunes, Pharrell Williams has won Grammys, helped to sell millions of albums, and become the face of nerdy cool in hip-hop. More recently, Williams has branched out into fashion and art, designing sunglasses and modeling for Louis Vuitton, working with Paris boutique Colette, as well as launching his own clothing line, Billionaire Boys Club, a footwear line, Ice Cream, and partnering with textile firm Bionic Yarn. Last year he collaborated with artist Takashi Murakami and jewelry house Jacob & Co. to create The Simple Things: a cupcake, a bag of Doritos, a bottle of Heinz ketchup, a Pepsi can, a sneaker, a condom, and a bottle of Johnson’s Baby Lotion—encrusted with 26,000 rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and diamonds inside the mouth of a Murakami sculpture—shown at Art Basel in Switzerland. Oh, and he still finds time to make music: Last month, Interscope released the soundtrack to the animated comedy Despicable Me, which Williams co-wrote, and this fall, he will unveil his fourth album with his group N.E.R.D, which includes Shae Haley and Williams’s Neptunes cohort Chad Hugo. As the name of the alt-rock trio suggests, the 37-year-old Williams is a connoisseur of cool, but not a slave to it.
What is less known about Williams is his interest in science—specifically, the brain. He recently became fascinated with the work of Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, San Diego. Ramachandran, director of the university’s Center of Brain and Cognition, has been called one of the “hundred most prominent people to watch” in the 21st century by Newsweek magazine. Still, it would be difficult to imagine two less likely collaborators: one is a pop-music icon, the son of a handyman and a schoolteacher from suburban Virginia who now rolls around Miami in an Enzo Ferrari. The other is a neuroscientist, born in India and educated at Cambridge. What could they possibly have in common? A lot, as it turns out. But in the following conversation, it’s easy to see how both men feed off of each other with the thrill of discovery, and take mutual pleasure in zigging while the rest of the world zags.
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