A refreshing burst of energy has come screaming out of Neptune’s faraway seas and exploded, sending its flaming shards throughout the hip-hop universe. Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo, and Shay of the newly formed N.E.R.D (No one Ever Really Dies), are riding a new wave of musical experimentation, expanding audience tastes everywhere with a hip-hop style infused with everything from the pain of the blues to the psychedelic cries of rock, from the spontaneous and linguistic virtuosity of rap to the feel-good vibes of pop.
They are, simply stated, an eclectic group so bold and so fearless it would be hard not to enjoy their debut album, “In Search Of N.E.R.D.”
How fitting it is, during this age where production is almost more important than the music itself, that In Search Of is the work of slick young producers, Williams and Hugo, a.k.a. “The Neptunes.” Catapulted to hip-hop stardom with their work on Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Ya Money” in 1999, they’ve since gone on to produce hits for rappers Jay-Z, Mystikal, and Ludacris, as well as the lap-slide genius Ben Harper and the R&B group, Blackstreet.
As if that weren’t impressive enough, they’ve got projects in the works with Britney Spears, No Doubt and Limp Bizkit, not to mention Destiny’s Child and Mary J. Blige. Needless to say, The Neptunes have been pushing all the right buttons. Now it seems the time has come for them to make their own album.
In Search Of is marked by a creativity and a sense of vitality lacking in most of the hip-hop of the past year. The opening track, “Lap Dance,” is an angry rock/hop anthem fueled by a dark and mysterious message: politicians are a bunch of prostitutes, selling themselves cheaply for political success. Here, the convergence of aggressive, base-driven rock with the spontaneous flow of the spoken word results in an almost entirely new genre, that of the rock-hop. Although this type of mixture has been successful before, and especially so by artists Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit, N.E.R.D.’s rock-hop is special because it is so firmly grounded in its roots as a beat music, placing emphasis on rhythm and percussion over loud vocals and angry guitar riffs.
Switching gears unexpectedly, the poppy sound of “Am I High” catches you off-guard. Just when you thought this album was about rock and hip-hop and their reconciliation, N.E.R.D. gives you this fluid, free flowing pop ballad. Stevie Wonder-like in its essence, this song is fueled by repeated melodic crescendos that are sustained by a plethora of synthetic sound machines. The airy acoustic sound is so much like the swoosh-swooshing of a vacuum playing in the back ground you’ll find yourself wondering if Mike Fishman from Phish was up to his old tricks somewhere in the recording studio.
Without a doubt, “Bobby James” is the best song on this album. Stone Temple Pilots meets Prince meets Lauren Hill. It is funky, it is beautiful, it is an epic story of love, life and the travails of a kid who gets teased in school and who goes on to become a homeless junkie.
With a catchy chorus and the sullen voice of Williams, you find yourself immersed in Bobby James’ dangerous world of lies, threats, and self-destruction. After an awkwardly placed pause, the song takes a break and moves off into a completely new direction. Suddenly, you are brought into the dream world of Bobby’s mind, where folksy Spanish guitar gives way to jazzy riffs of the saxaphone. There is no way to describe this kind of song except to say that it is pleasantly off the beaten path.
Where N.E.R.D. succeeds in introducing an exciting new mix of jazz, rock, hip-hop and even a little bit of the blues in “Provider,” it highlights the fact that this group has no intrinsic musical talent at all. Williams’ stale voice struggles to give songs like “Stay Together” and “Run to the Sun” their intended melodic attraction. In addition, it is blatantly obvious that none of these guys can play an instrument. In Search Of’s reliance on synthetic recording instruments and cheesy midi-imposed sounds leaves you with the kind of rank taste that is, dare I say, equal parts milli and vanilli.
In the end, this album is still worth buying. Sure, most of it has been cut into shreds and reshaped, repositioned and digitally altered by young masters of the recording studio. But it builds on this tendency to rip apart the music into its elements by refashioning those shreds into something completely new and different.
By blurring the distinctions between what we know as pop, rock and hip hop while inflecting the funky tones of jazz and the blues in their recordings, N.E.R.D. has made In Search Of a meaningful foray into the seas of musical experimentation.
Now where’s that vacuum, Fishman?