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Friday, June 14, 2024

Little to 'Nothing' to dislike about N.E.R.D.'s latest album

Despite consisting of one of the music industry's consistently successful hip-hop/pop production teams, the Neptunes, N.E.R.D.'s group work has never topped the charts. Ten years and three studio albums have not given the trio of Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo and Shay Haley much radio play. In fact, the highest chart position of any of their songs came in 2004 with ""She Wants To Move"" hitting fifth on the U.K. singles chart. While N.E.R.D.'s albums have been more successful than their singles (with In Search Of… (2002) and Fly or Die (2004) both reaching gold status) the three Grammys and two Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Awards sitting on a shelf in the Neptunes' studio are better indicators of the group's excellent production and arrangement skills.

And it's these skills that are the high points of their new album, Nothing.

Musically, the band has always been experimental, and Nothing is no different. According to Rolling Stone, the band was inspired by sounds of the '60s and groups like The Doors and The Beach Boys. ""Victory"" and ""Help Me"" are most in tune with this era, the latter sounding like a re-imagined James Bond film score with moody guitar and 808 drumbeats. Pharrell's typically reedy falsetto comes off as stirringly haunting, as the frontman gives arguably his best vocal performance of the album.

""Hypnotize U,"" the Daft Punk-engineered single, combines European techno and psychedelic drumbeats, along with Pharrell's mesmerizing warble resulting in something that can only be described as groovy.

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To appeal to commercially-minded record label executives, Nothing contains a few less experimental songs. ""Party People"" features a rapid-fire appearance by T.I., but is relatively forgettable. Pharrell's simple and usually catchy lyrics become borderline irritating when sung over a beat that sounds like it was made on an out-of-tune keytar. Like much of N.E.R.D's less creative and more repetitive work, ""Party People"" is the type of song that sounds better at a high energy performance than it ever will on headphones.

The album's first single, ""Hot-n-fun"" is slightly less migraine-inducing. The track features a memorable guest performance from Nelly Furtado, which is another example of a track seemingly made for a live show. It's possible that the band itself understands the nature of their music, as much of the music was first introduced at venues like MTV's Spring Break concert series long before being leaked online.

N.E.R.D. is most frequently criticized for their lyrics, which usually come off as painfully simple compared to the sophistication of their production. However, Nothing hits its highest note on ""God Bless Us All,"" a song that features lyrics about something other than festivities and females, two N.E.R.D. topical mainstays. The song resonates socially conscious lines like, ""you are brown in this world that's black and white, lil' bruh / You were made to amaze and bring change, lil' bruh."" With a strong jazz and almost gospel-like influence this song is as uplifting as its background trumpet is resonating. A crown jewel of an experimental album, this song finds N.E.R.D.'s vocal and songwriting ability equalling, if not surpassing, its prodigious and innovative style of production.

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