In Search Of...
by Simon Reynolds
N*E*R*D are The Neptunes are Pharrell Williams & Chad Hugo, the Virginia-bred R&B/rap production team who are just coming off an astounding run of hits. The spate started in late 1999 with Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Got Your Money" and Kelis's "Caught Out There," blew up last year with Jay-Z's "I Just Wanna Love U", Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass," and Beenie Man's "Girls Dem Sugar," and continues with Ludacris's "Southern Hospitality". But if you expected their debut solo would be drenched in that deliciously chewy, sinewy James-Brown-for-the-Y2K sound that underpins the Jay Z and Mystikal tracks, or take the techno tinged brutalism of the Ludacris single even further, think again. In Search Of... is really a black rock album. True, there's hardly any guitar and the drumming is programmed not played. But songs like the dirty synth-bass riffing "Things Are Getting Better" have the hard, unswinging attack of rock. Basically, there's a reason Pharrell Williams is sporting an AC/DC T-shirt on the back cover.
Given that Williams & Hugo were once in a band with their Virginia Beach neighbour Timbaland, and right now are jousting with the podgy producer for control of the Black American BeatGeist, the obvious parallel for In Search of... is Welcome To Our World, the 1997 album where Timbaland stepped out of the shadows for the first time to claim some limelight (dragging his not immensely talented sidekick Magoo with him). There's a difference, though. For all trackmaster Tim's brilliance as rhythm composer, on Welcome he was talking loud (actually, sotto voce in a sub-Isaac Hayes deep 'n' low baritone) but saying fuck-all. Whereas N*E*R*D... well, they're on some kind of early Seventies cosmic/social consciousness trip, harking back to What's Goin' On/Innversions/Harvest For the World. Williams, in particular, seems intent on Really Saying Something, bringing back capital 'c' Content to the sonically radical but lyrically visionless black pop culture of the day.
That's the intent, at any rate. In terms of political acumen, the politicians-as-strippers analogy of "Lapdance" is only marginally more astute than OutKast's incoherent "Bombs Over Baghdad" (2000's most Over-Rated Single, surely?). But as black noise---that raspy riff like a wasp in your earhole, that coiled hypertense rhythm-track--"Lapdance" is as exhilarating as "911 Is A Joke" off PE's Fear of A Black Planet. And the post-election disgust it voices makes a neat parallel with Radiohead's "You and Whose Army?". "Provider" is one notch up the politics-in-pop sophistication scale, from soapbox speaking-out to first person narrative as cautionary tale, couched in B-boy blues similar to Everlast. The song's protagonist is a drug dealer who can only put bread on the family's table by going out each morning to face the streets and the prospect of not coming back, like, EVER. "Freddie's Dead"/"Pusherman"-era Curtis Mayfield is echoed musically as well as lyrically, with a beautifully fey and floaty mid-section. The kosmik stuff is a tad more subtle: references to the subconscious, phrases like "we are the dreamers," while N*E*R*D itself stands for No One Ever Really Dies. (It's fair to surmise that these boys like the odd puff). And there's more than a trace of full-on psychedelia in the mix: the staccato keyboard-stab and eerie, sneery melody of "Brain" recall Sixties garage-psych bands like The Electric Prunes and The Music Machine.
The difference between the Neptunes sound and the rest of the R&B pack is most apparent in the rhythms, which are stiffer and simpler than the fiddly-with-syncopation post-Destiny's norm. Williams & Hugo's unsupple beats evoke Eighties electro's drum machine sound, but rarely sound retro. What this means, though, is that the drums alone can't carry the song, as they do with so much modern R&B. And so "Truth or Dare" is the album's one dud because the riff, beat and Kelis's vocal lick are all based on the same drab pattern. After this mid-album falter, though, there's a seven song stretch of non-stop awesomeness, kicked off by "Run to the Sun"---a gorgeous Isley-esque song of astral love, all honeydripping interlocked harmonies, Roy Ayers-circa-"Daylight" keyboard ripples, heart-pulse bass, and teasing rhythm guitar. Then follows the Beatlesy "Stay Together; " the "black Jaxx" confection of clavinet, twangadelic guitar, lounge harmonies and dub-house off-beat keyboard licks that is "Baby Doll"; the thick moog sleaze and porno panting of "Tape You"; the exquisitely tight-but-loose slow grind funk of "Am I High". Best of all is closer "Bobby James," the lament of a teenage druggy on a downward spiral, reduced to panhandling for dope money. The phased falsetto and headspinningly intricate arrangement make you really feel the swoony chorus "I'm high as hell and I'm ready to blast/I'm just one hit away from being passed out."
This year's Stankonia, In Search Of.... is further proof of the Dirty South's hegemony over hip hop, and a gauntlet thrown down to Timbaland: raise your game again, son.