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Triumph of the N.E.R.D.s
N.E.R.D.: In Search Of...
Posted: March 15,
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
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
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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