N.E.R.D.: Nothing


RIYL: Prince, Lady GaGa, Justin Timberlake

As the Neptunes, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo are as responsible as anyone for the sound of popular music over the last decade as anyone else. Starting out as the apprentices of New Jack Swing godfather Teddy Riley, Chad & Pharrell’s minimal synth stabs took a diverse array of artists to the top of the charts: from coke-rap duo Clipse to teenyboppers the Backstreet Boys, Britney & ‘NSync.

As their performing alter egos N.E.R.D., Pharrell and Chad (joined occasionally by rapper Shae Haley) have not been as successful. One moderately successful debut album (In Search Of…) should have led to bigger things, but two subsequent efforts have been average performers commercially and critically. N.E.R.D.’s sound might be a little too eclectic for Top 40 radio – it’s not very easy to put in a box or define. Is it hip-hop? It is soul music? Is it rock?

NERD 3 - SMALL

A year or so ago, as the band prepared to record their fourth album, Nothing, they introduced a fourth member into the group, female singer Rhea. This move was a head-scratcher to many. It seemed as though N.E.R.D. was looking at label mates the Black Eyed Peas as a blueprint to success. Thankfully (because Lord knows we don’t need another version of BEP in this world), Rhea was sacked and N.E.R.D. returned to its original configuration.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the band’s inconsistent output and the Neptunes’ declining commercial fortunes, Nothing is quite a good album. The sound is still as varied as ever: the guys are still equal parts garage-rock and synth-pop, but none of it feels forced. There are a handful of eye-rolling lyrical moments – Pharrell Williams isn’t and will never be the world’s best lyricist – but Nothing offers more bang for your buck than any N.E.R.D./Neptunes/Pharrell album other since their debut.

The album’s opening track, “Party People,” turns out to be a bit of a red herring. The synthed-up club jam (boasting vocals by T.I.) is certainly the most commercial thing they’d ever released. Interestingly, N.E.R.D. pulls off that sound well – at least for the one song. The rest of the album veers from the rocking “Help Me” to the quasi-mystical “Life as a Fish” (which honestly reads like the diary entries of a very, VERY stoned college student). There’s a cool Daft Punk production (“Hypnotize U”), way more saxophone than on the past 15 years of N.E.R.D. albums and Neptunes productions combined, and a refreshingly varied approach to subject matter that includes the inspirational “God Bless Us All” and the politically motivated “It’s in the Air” in addition to the usual ass-shaking anthems (which happen to be MUCH less annoying and even kinda enjoyable in this context).

Nothing won’t reinvent the wheel and it probably won’t be a huge commercial success, either – the Neptunes’ moment (well, more like a decade than a moment) seems to have passed them. However, this is the most vibrant work that Pharrell in particular has been a part of in quite some time. Strangely (and happily for those of us who don’t live and die by radio and the charts) their music appears to be getting more interesting as their star fades. (Interscope 2010)

N.E.R.D. MySpace page

  

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>