N.E.R.D. “Nothing” (review)

Somewhere over the course of the past decade Pharrell Williams‘ name became synonymous with style—not simply style, but innovation as well. Musically, if your project had the man’s name associated with it, its chances of failure were nil; even his 2006 solo debut, In My Mind, somehow avoided universal critical backlash despite being marginally bearable. Like Pharrell, his production team the Neptunes has also consistently been praised for their forward thinking approach when working alongside some of the era’s most colossal characters. From Ol’ Dirty Bastard to Britney Spears, from the Clipse to Kanye West, the Neptunes have backed them all. But for every “Drop It Like It’s Hot” there have been a dozen flat beats along the way, an inconsistency that has been no more apparent than with N.E.R.D. In the wake of two commercially successful outings—2002′s In Search Of… and 2004′s Fly or Die—the trio of Pharrell, his Neptunes partner Chad Hugo, and Shay Haley returned with Seeing Sounds in 2008—a largely inconsistent LP that missed its mark with fans and critics alike. Now comes Nothing, which raises the question of whether or not Pharrell and his crew can actually release a consistent album that lives up to their abilities. In short: it does. But the reason why it succeeds might surprise some.

Unlike the group’s previous album, the rock element is largely subdued here—the songs are sewed together with elements of funk and pop so seamlessly that they neither bear a resemblance to the aggressive sounds of “Rock Star” or the pulsating energy of “Everyone Nose” that have so greatly defined their sound to this point. In discussing the album to Much Music recently, Pharrell addressed the influences that are so clearly heard throughout Nothing, pointing out the Doors, America and Crosby, Stills & Nash as a few of the names which helped steer the direction of N.E.R.D.’s new songs back to the ’70s. Think sexy, think horn-driven TV soundtracks, think filthy, nasty funk; whatever you do, don’t think rap/rock when thinking of Nothing.
The energetic “Party People” opens Nothing with a crusty organ and rumbling bass line. Later T.I. steps in for a rapid-fire verse which works within the barriers of the album; the result is an all-too-brief cameo that adds to the track and helps set the tone for what’s yet to come. “Hypnotize U” follows by relying heavily on a hypnotic beat that works well beneath Pharrell’s whispered falsetto. As is true throughout much of the album though, his lyrics seem off-the-mark, and his attempts to sound sexy come off with all the romantic allure of the introduction to Deep Throat, “I can make your storms feel sky blue… If I’m not beside you, I’m inside you.”

“Help Me” peaks with a horn explosion; something which is echoed throughout Nothing with the rattling drum beat of the ’70s cop drama theme song-sounding “Perfect Defect,” the use of a sax in “I’ve Seen the Light/Inside of Clouds,” and “Sacred Temple.” Weaving between the bouncing “Victory,” the Steve Miller-reaching “I’ve Seen the Light/Inside of Clouds” and the nasty funk of “God Bless Us All,” the album begins to hit its stride following the slow crooner “Life as a Fish.” “Nothing On You” and the Nelly Furtado collaboration “Hot-n-Fun” then catapult the energy into a higher level, one which holds up through to “The Man.”

Nothing isn’t a drastic shift in sound, but it’s an interesting direction nonetheless. You can still call it rock, but it’s really the group’s first honest attempt at a complete pop album. The trio doesn’t fall into any grinding tangents which break up the momentum of Nothing, and there aren’t any tracks which disrupt the flow of the sound. Even Pharrell doesn’t come off as out-of-place despite lyrics ranging from the innocently goofy “While the federal buildings blow, below fish glow” (“Life as a Fish”) to the passive aggressive “No, I won’t kill you, but I’ll watch you die” (“Help Me”). In doing so they’re showing a little more evidence of why they’ve been revered so highly all these years. Maybe it’s the unexpectedly smooth direction, maybe it’s the lack of depth from the group’s chart-topping contemporaries this year, but with relatively little fanfare leading up to its release, N.E.R.D. has put together one of 2010′s most surprisingly complete pop albums.

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