Back with their first album in seven years, N.E.R.D – comprised of Neptunes co-conspirators Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo and producer Shay Haley – bolster their oddball skate rap sound of old with the starry presence of collaborators including Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna and Future. Al Shipley reviews a record that’s only occasionally as catchy as it wants to be.
N.E.R.D has always stood for “no one ever really dies” but till recently, the Virginia Beach band appeared pretty dead indeed. Central duo Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo began a legendary run as The Neptunes production team two decades ago but have worked together less and less in the seven years since their last N.E.R.D project, Nothing. In May, Hugo tweeted, “I resign from the music business.” The message was quickly erased and a rep characterized it as a joke, but the impression remained: their return was not imminent.
Williams and Hugo have always treated N.E.R.D as an uninhibited playground for songs and sounds that might be too strange for their already fairly leftfield pop hits. But in the years since we last heard from the oddball rap-rock experiment, which also counts producer Shay Haley as a member, the culture has moved a lot further toward their genre-blurring vision. Festivals like Afropunk and Tyler, the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival are full of musicians and fans who grew up idolizing Skateboard P. Earlier this year Williams collaborated with Lil Uzi Vert, the latest heavily-pierced and tattooed young rap star who’s announced his intentions to record a rock album.
On paper, No_One Ever Really Dies looks like an album designed to give N.E.R.D a greater mainstream presence than ever before. It features more big name guests than the band’s first four albums combined, including Rihanna who raps a Pharrell-penned verse exactly as he would deliver it on the lead single ‘Lemon’. But there’s no mistaking this album for an all-star collection of club bangers like the 2003 compilation The Neptunes Present… Clones. No_One doesn’t much push the envelope elsewhere, either – its sound is more or less exactly like N.E.R.D’s last two patience-testing albums: tinny drum machines, choppy ska punk guitar riffs, jazzy electric piano chords and yelping and hollering vocals are piled on top of each other as awkwardly as possible. It’s a far cry from N.E.R.D’s early albums, which bolstered airtight Neptunes beats with Spymob’s live band backing to occasionally marvelous effect.
In a spoken aside on ‘ESP’, Williams says something that might as well be the motto of N.E.R.D’s deliberately disorienting music: “You know that you got it right when people ask, ‘Hey, what are you on?’” Some songs like ‘Deep Down Body Thurst’ and ‘Don’t Don’t Do It’ lure you in with pleasant opening passages of jazzy R&B, but after a minute they explode into another moshpit that resembles nothing so much as MIDI versions of early Red Hot Chili Peppers songs.
Voices sampled from viral videos and news footage chatter throughout the album, filling the few empty spaces. ‘Rollinem 7’s’ is one of three tracks on the album that samples the rapper Retch saying “mad ethnic right now” while standing in a crowd of white people in a 2015 video. The same song also samples a viral 2003 newscast about cars with whistling exhaust pipes (“the whistles go whoooo”) and testimony from the trial for Trayvon Martin’s killer George Zimmerman. This is an album that constantly veers between silly and dead serious, and dares you to notice the difference.
Unsurprisingly, the only guest who sounds perfectly at home on No_One Ever Really Dies is ‘Rollinem 7’s’ guest Andre 3000, a guy who’s been subverting hip-hop norms for longer than Pharrell and Chad. On ‘1000’, Future sounds like he had to close his eyes and pretend he was on a boilerplate Metro Boomin track to get his verse and Gucci Mane’s vocals on ‘Voila’ are literally beamed in from an uncompleted 2008 Neptunes collaboration that had a completely different beat when he recorded it. Kendrick Lamar appears on the album twice with his usual fire and fury, but if the police brutality lament ‘Don’t Don’t Do It!’ is a sequel to Lamar’s Pharrell-produced 2015 single ‘Alright,’ it’s a deeply inferior one.
At their best, N.E.R.D is like a 21st century Devo, casting a critical eye at a corporatized conformist society with deadpan humor and a Bizarro World take on popular music that’s occasionally as catchy as the real thing. But almost every time a real life superstar shows up on No_One Ever Really Dies, they spoil the mood and stop N.E.R.D from constructing their own parallel universe pop.
Al Shipley is a music writer who lives in Maryland.
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