Revenge of N.E.R.D
After scrapping an entire album, N.E.R.D are back with Nothing
N.E.R.D are always wrestling with conflict, whether it’s between popularity and creativity or about their group’s artistic vision. That’s been true ever since childhood friends Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo and Shae Haley joined forces nearly a decade ago.
In the 90s, Williams and Hugo were the Neptunes, the go-to production duo for futuristic club beats. When N.E.R.D.’s debut, In Search Of…, was initially released, it showcased the electronic sound fans had come to expect. But then the band re-recorded it with live instrumentation and re-released it a year later.
Since then, N.E.R.D. have existed between the worlds of hip-hop, pop and alt rock. Last fall they opened for Jay-Z in Toronto. It was an experimental moment for the group: they had just welcomed vocalist Rhea and were touting an unfinished album entitled Instant Gratification.
This week, N.E.R.D. are back, Rhea is out, and so is the title.
“This is the microwave era,” says Williams. “We want things right now, we want it hot, we want it for 10 minutes and then we’re on to the next. We decided to make something more timeless by scrapping that whole album and starting again with nothing.”
Hence the new title, Nothing. Due in November on Star Trak, it features the raucous party jams for which N.E.R.D. are known, with a retro flavour. In describing its sound, Williams references the Doors, the Moody Blues and Crosby, Stills and Nash and talks of string arrangements, fuzzed-out guitar and buzzing amps. Hypnotize U, a slow jam composed with French house gods Daft Punk, is the lone deviation.
“[The album] sounds very vintage, very thrift store-ish,” says Williams.
“On the previous two, we were super-experimental and there was a lot of politics involved,” says Haley. “We tried to do things that were suitable for the majority. This time, we cater to them, but ultimately went with our gut feeling, and it feels good.”
The record sleeve features a close-up of Williams wearing a feathered military helmet, a visual metaphor for “the inner conflict on the head of every man,” explains Haley.
The duo say the album’s 60s-era overtones are timely. “I mean, aren’t we back there at that time now?” Williams asks. “People want peace but at the same time there’s war.”
And sometimes conflict can result in the most carefree, celebratory music.