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Triumph of the N.E.R.D.s


N.E.R.D.: In Search Of...

Virgin, 2002

Rating: 4.5



Posted: March 15, 2002

By Laurence Station

Behind-the-scenes production impresarios the Neptunes (Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams) have crafted hits for megawatt stars from Jay-Z and Mystikal to Backstreet Boys and No Doubt. Working with such a diverse array of performers across incredibly different genres says a lot about not only the Neptunes' considerable producing skills, but also the twosome's ability to transcend industry-defined marketing pigeonholes. Aligning with cohort Shay Thornton (from their home base of Virginia), Hugo and Pharrell move behind the mike with their new project, N.E.R.D. The title is an acronym for No One Ever Really Dies, which neatly summarizes the trio's philosophy regarding their own reinvention/rebirth as well as the ability of the human spirit to overcome even the most challenging obstacles.

(Note: In Search Of... had a few obstacles of its own to overcome before reaching the masses: The original version, comprised of electronically-processed beats that are Hugo and Williams' bread and butter, was originally slated for an August 2001 release. Displeased with the finished results, N.E.R.D. shelved the disc, although copies were released in the U.K. over the group's objections.)

This completely re-recorded, definitive version (In Search Of..., Vol. 2.0) trades in artificially-crafted beats for live instrumentation courtesy of backing band Spymob, the album's secret weapon. The traditional rock-funk arrangements bring a propulsive immediacy and crackling vitality to tracks that, although tightly mixed, were decidedly muted in their original incarnations. The crunching guitar work, powerfully throbbing bass and (still down-mixed, but far more prevalent) drumbeats elevate these twelve tracks from the polished fluency of what the Neptunes have repeatedly accomplished for others into something far more organic, fresh and revelatory.

Rather than sample and repeat what has gone before, N.E.R.D. internalizes the myriad sounds its members grew up with and expresses them in creative, engaging and completely original ways. Influences ranging from underground hip-hop to '70s psychedelic funk, pop and hard rock are liberally distilled throughout: Curtis Mayfield, Kool & The Gang, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Spinners, Lynyrd Skynrd, AC/DC,  Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway and America are all represented, serving to connect the record with the past, while smartly reinterpreting it for a whole new audience.

Lyrically, In Search Of... runs the gamut from critiquing politicians and their weakness for soft money ("Lapdance") to tempered positivism ("Things Are Getting Better"). Social commentary ranges from the tragic choices "Provider"'s narrator makes to take care of his family ("I went to see what my friend was talking about/Drugs/He told me cocaine would get you clout") to the Superfly-worthy story of sad-sack teenager "Bobby James," who succumbs to a life of addiction as a way of escaping the pain of being a social outsider. The finest cut, "Run to the Sun," examines the feelings of regret and loss associated with not being there for a dying loved one.

But it's with the incendiary "Rock Star" that N.E.R.D. makes its most important point. Throwing down the gauntlet with the snarling opening line "Fuckin' posers," the track then proceeds to question the skills of the near-endless batch of moderately talented rap-metal bands currently dominating the airwaves.

The melding of hip hop, rock and soul is the most exciting thing to happen to popular music since the guitar went electric. In Search Of... is a landmark release in this still-nascent arena, and N.E.R.D. unquestionably one outfit worth following into that unknown but quite promising future.

Fans of N.E.R.D. might want to check out other socially-aware, hard hitting innovators in the world of hip hop, like Philly-based The Roots, whose masterful 1999 release Things Fall Apart remains a potent mix of clever raps and bold critique of the music world and beyond and Mos Def's Black Jack Johnson Project, formed specifically to take hard-edged rap back from the pseudo-rap/rockers making a mockery of the form.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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