N.E.R.D. / The Neptunes
Reviewed on this page:
In Search Of... - The Neptunes Present... The Clones - Fly Or Die - Seeing Sounds - Nothing
Since the late 90s, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo had tremendous success as the production team The Neptunes, initially working with hip hop artists - Ol' Dirty Bastard, MC Lyte - and later branching out into pop (Beyoncé Knowles' "Work It Out"; Mariah Carey's "To The Floor"), but I've rarely been impressed with their repetitive, familiar-sounding retro funk. Their band project N.E.R.D. (working with childhood friend Shae) is a different story, as their debut featured a live band and a terrific batch of tunes. The followup was a dull retread, and the third disc is somewhere in between.
Pharrell Williams, vocals, programming, drums; Chad Hugo, keyboards, programming; Shae Haley, vocals, I'm not sure what else.
In Search Of... (2002)
Backed by versatile, New Wave-y rock band Spymob, N.E.R.D.'s debut is a crazy amalgam of styles and approaches, propelling
songwriting much more clever than their usual ("Brain"). The two singles, "Lapdance" and "Rock Star," are irresistable, raps with sung choruses and synth and guitar
doubling huge riffs over shifting rhythms, and "Truth Or Dare" is in the same mold. But rather than run that approach into the ground, there are also soul ballads ("Provider," with a bossa
nova coda; "Stay Together," with a hilarious Michael Jackson impression) and at least one mock AM anthem ("Am I High").
There are plenty of retro touches - Duane Eddy guitar on "Baby Doll," Moog squiggles on "Tape You" - but drawing from such a wide variety
of genres they're never predictable. Even the lesser tracks are memorable: the love song "Run To The Sun" has absurd lyrics and a lame vocal
delivery, but the rhythm section cooks up such a solid groove it's tough to dislike. Guests include Lee Harvey, Vita, Kelis, Pusha T and Malice.
The Neptunes Present... Clones (The Neptunes: 2003)
It must be nice to be such successful producers that you can put together an album of outtakes from your other projects and have it debut at #1, but I have to think
Williams and Hugo are going to alienate their audience if they keep pulling this kind of crap.
There are stars aplenty - Busta Rhymes, Nas, Snoop Dogg, N.O.R.E. - and Williams adds his endearingly untrained voice to a number of cuts,
but the grooves are stale and frequently irritating ("Blaze Of Glory"). The biggest disappointments are the tracks from alter-egos N.E.R.D. ("Loser")
and their backup band, Spymob (the generic retro-rocker "Half-Steering"). Ol' Dirty Bastard appears here as Dirt McGirt, and his "Pop Shit" is more
evidence that he's lost without Wu-Tang Clan looking out for him; Vanessa Marquez's "Good Girl" is an accurate but unnecessary ripoff of late 80s Janet
Jackson. There are exactly two songs worth hearing here: the lovely "Frontin'," with Jay-Z and Williams; and Nelly's "If."
Fly Or Die (2004)
This time Williams and Hugo fired the band and played all the instruments themselves, which was a big mistake: the bass, guitars and keyboards are predictable but perfunctory - as if they were so nervous about playing the right notes they forgot to play anything interesting - and Williams is a strikingly dull drummer ("Backseat Love").
As a result, the sound is still retro rock, but without the stylistic range or subtle touches that made their last record; instead, track after track has the same minimal arrangement ("Breakout"), which is compounded by the drabness and humorlessness of the compositions (title track). The pensive "Maybe" benefits from outside players - drumming from ?love and guitar by Lenny Kravitz - though it's still far from brilliant; the only other notable guests are Good Charlotte's Joel and Benji Madden ("Jump").
But there are a couple of tunes at the level of the debut - the deliberate rocker "Don't Worry About It" (with Andrew Coleman on guitar), and the simple but catchy groove "She Wants To Move" - and just on that basis the record's worth checking out if you find it cheap.
In My Mind (Pharrell: 2006)
Hugo was sidelined for this release.
Loads of guests including Gwen Stefani ("Can I Have It Like That"), Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, Nelly and Kanye West ("Number One").
Seeing Sounds (2008)
Nothing tentative this time: the percussion is mostly programmed and in your face; the bulk of the riffage is carried by guitars, and they're plenty loud ("Kill Joy"). Put that together with some quality tunes ("Windows") and a killer epic ballad ("Sooner Or Later") and half the record rises to the stratospheric heights of In Search Of....
The thing with abrasiveness, though, is that when it flops it flops badly: the leadoff single "Everyone Nose (All The Girls Standing In The Line For The Bathroom)" is completely ruined by an overused chant, and the same goes for looped interjections in the otherwise slamming "Anti-Matter." Then there are a few tunes that never get going, like the sluggish "Love Bomb."
The Neptunes have faded from the airwaves fairly rapidly - replaced by the likes of Dr. Luke - and that's fair enough: live by the oversaturated production trend, die thereby. But rather than see them banished to the Island of Outmoded Producers with Stock-Aiken-Waterman, I hope Chad & Pharrell keep working: though their flops now sound like anyone else's flops, their successes still exhibit a refreshing outsider sensibility.
This latest album has more than its share of directionless love songs ("Hypnotize U," produced by Daft Punk) and failed club anthems ("Party People"; "Nothing On You") which are easily dismissed. But don't miss the wonderfully goofy, Mothers Of Invention-meet-The Spinners love song "I've Seen The Light/Inside Of Clouds" or the psychedelic science lesson "Life As A Fish." Nelly Furtado guests on the falsely advertised "Hot-N-Fun"; some versions of the album contain bonus tracks ("Ride That Thang" featuring Fam-Lay and co-written by Tanya Tucker) which I haven't heard.
It's almost over now.