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Pharrell’s fun
Jamming with N.E.R.D.

There are plenty of things that one can dislike about Fly or Die, the new album from N.E.R.D., not the least of which is Pharrell Williams. As the group’s principal songwriter and charismatic frontman, Williams is synonymous with N.E.R.D, just as he is with the Neptunes, the production moniker he shares with his foreground-phobic partner Chad Hugo. Together, they have steadily retuned the mainstream music ear to embrace their avant-garde hip-hop minimalism with an assaulting, genre-ambiguous collection of chart-topping hits.

Their dominance on the charts notwithstanding, the presence of Williams has seemingly eclipsed the pair’s musical achievements. The boyish, tattooed Williams is everywhere: the hooks or ad-libs on the dozens of songs the Neptunes produce for different artists, the accompanying videos for each of those inevitable hit singles, the photo spreads in Teen Vogue and Vibe. Last summer, he emerged as a solo artist, scoring a hit with the coy confessional, "Frontin’ " ( the digitized instrumental was one of the most popular ring-tones downloaded by Ringster 2.0 last year).

For the second chapter of his great adventures (N.E.R.D’s brilliant 2002 In Search of . . . being the first), Williams abandons his own age and climbs into the specious remembrance of adolescence, hitting all the issues of being an awkward high schooler. Over the flowery march of guitars and warbled processional keyboards on "Drill Sergeant," Williams sticks out his chest and kicks a verse with a postured, I-won’t-do-what-you-tell-me rebelliousness. On the title track, he’s the punky outcast, daydreaming about his own suicide. ("It won’t be long ’til you see me on the news/ Another soul lost at sea . . ."). On "Backseat Love," he is the conflicted teen, both cocky and awkward, trying to get laid in the only place nobody’s parents will catch them; "A Wonderful Place" is about the naïve joy of first-time drug use.

The ages between 13 and 18 are fertile lyrical ground — if it were cultivated by someone other than a going-on-30 millionaire. No matter how cool Williams ostensibly is, he comes off as a poseur — the ultimate insult.

However, the language of rhythms and melodies and ever-shifting chord changes, the musical language in which N.E.R.D negotiates those narratives, gives the record its true virtue. Indeed, it’s Williams and Hugo’s role as songwriters — and not lyricists — that authored the shift in pop consciousness over the last six years. (The third member of N.E.R.D., Sheldon Hayley, a/k/a Shae, is an old high school friend from Virginia Beach; his contributions are limited to backing vocals, backing percussion, and mascot.) From the fringe thug rappers who peppered their early discography (Noreaga) to the boy bands (N’SYNC) and pop star/starlets (Justin, Britney) to the glam-arena rockers (No Doubt), Pharrell and Chad, as the Neptunes, approach every production the same way: they jam in the red velvet-draped room of their studio playing drums, keyboards, and guitars until they’ve found a robust rhythmic riff and a flourishing melodious bridge — then they distill both down into a singular, spare, machine gun–style beat that is a glorious slice of pop perfection.

Fly or Die lives in that first stage of the Neptunes’ creative process, the jam, before songs are boiled down to their essence. The ideas incurred are nurtured into full-grown songs that echo the late-1970s pop-rock-jazz fusion that N.E.R.D proudly wear on their hip-hop sleeves. "The Way She Dances" is the kind of anti-disco club track that Hall & Oates built careers on. Pharrell fetes the willowy curves of a dancing femme, doing his rendition of a Darryl Hall-like, white-boy soul croon.

On "Breakout," Williams sings about being on the losing end of a bully beat-down — and finding a way to accept it. His oddly inspirational tale of humility starts out as a head-down, clouds-out ballad — then kicks into a heavy, driven funk bridge before bursting into the sunbeams of a quick-stepping jazz refrain accented by a synthesized keyboard drift and harmonized chants filled with resilient attitude. It’s the kind of multi-genre shifting that Steely Dan built a three-decades-long career on. And N.E.R.D. — who ditched the flaccid funk of Minneapolis bar band Spymob and played all the instruments themselves — have the imagination and abilities to pull it off.

In doing so, Williams and Hugo have gerrymandered the boundaries of the current pop territory. The multi-platinum production team has earned the trust of audiences with a litany of SoundScan hits and draws upon that bond to once again challenge the accepted notion of what hip-hop can be, despite Williams’s insistence on drawing up anthems for the youth of today. Fans of Neptunes-powered pop, R&B, and hip-hop will have to figure out whether they can accept the deviance. That is, if N.E.R.D. can fly or die.

N.E.R.D. play a sold-out show at Avalon on April 13, with Black Eyed Peas.

Issue Date: April 9 - 15, 2004
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