What on Earth does Pharrell think he’s doing? Maybe that’s the wrong question to ask, though, as NERD gears up for the release of their latest album, No_One Ever Really Dies. Perhaps he left Earth behind a long time ago and he’s just waiting for the rest of us to meet him on whatever faraway planet he’s reached since.
The problem is that here on good old terra firma, the music he’s got his band making is either too far ahead of its time or too invested in making a statement to actually, you know, sound good. A group that used to stand on its own seems to be relying on flashy guest appearances to carry their new, messily tossed together beats and refusal to acknowledge the established tenets of pop songcraft. The clashy, noisily experimental sounds NERD has produced for their first four singles sounds out of place — not just in the modern radio soundscape of slickly produced smooth lines and fusion grooves, but even compared to NERD’s prior musical outings.
For instance, the band’s debut, In Search Of… was an experimental amalgam of their composite production duo The Neptunes’ blippy, technologically-advanced hip-hop and grungy surf rock, but it was equally grounded in both genres with a foot in each and its face toward the future. Songs like “Brain” and “Rockstar” skipped easily between the garage band jamming of backing band Spymob and the sci-fi laser fire synth of Pharrell and Chad Hugo’s groundbreaking production work for Jay-Z and Britney Spears.
By contrast, “Rollinem 7s” and “1000” are full of dissonant sounds, forgoing anything even remotely resembling melody or traditional structure — by design, as admitted by Williams himself — results in a that feel like coming off as sonic seizures instead of songs. They are alarming and as anti-pop as “Bobby James” and “Provider” are the epitome of mass appeal, which begs the question: Who is this for?
Sure, the hyperactive bounce of the aforementioned singles and that of “Lemon” and “Don’t Do It” are great for jumping around to like a crazed grade-schooler on a sugar high, but the average adult probably doesn’t have the kind of energy required to sustain that effort for the full three minutes most of these songs come out to, let alone the combined run of these four plus seven more.
In fact, “Rollinem 7s” and “1000” become grating almost immediately; with no verse-chorus-bridge structure, there’s nothing to grasp onto, no checkpoints to let you know when to jam out and when to nod your head. The beats begin to wear thin too quickly, becoming repetitive and irritating, and then Future’s verse comes out of nowhere without warning before disintegrating into nothing before it even registers arriving.
Likewise, “Lemon” is riding high off of the star power of its guest star Rihanna much more than its high-impact, driving backing track or its hyper-aerobic music video. By far the best of the tracks we’ve heard so far is “Don’t Do It,” with an anti-police brutality message and polished Kendrick Lamar verse. Pharrell proudly mentions slipping the much-needed political commentary into the song because the danceable track would sweeten its message, but again, the track is all over the place, making it difficult to pin down the context under which you’d be listening to this. A club PA would make it far too difficult to make out the lyrics (and its social commentary might get lost in the drunken fog of a nightclub), and it’s not the sort of song you throw on during a Sunday drive.
Admittedly, these are just four tracks out of a planned eleven, but there’s no sign that any of the other tracks will be a significant departure from this formula. By all means, it appears NERD is going for “turn the knob to 11 and tear it off” level energy throughout the compilation without really concerning themselves with pop success. While foregoing convention can be a winning recipe — after all, standing out from the prevailing musical standard is often the first part of building an fervent, engaged fanbase (see: Kanye West, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, or even the Gorillaz) — there needs to be a clear mission statement, and with No_One Ever Really Dies, it doesn’t appear that there is one so far apart from play all the instruments at the same time, very loudly.
With each successive album, NERD’s musical progression was clear. But after being gone so long it appears the band has become more interested in living up to a reputation of being musical mavericks than in making a lasting impression. Hopefully, the remaining seven tracks on No_One Ever Really Dies will reveal a greater plan that forges a cohesive musical project, but if not, I wouldn’t call it the end of the world. Even geniuses occasionally get it wrong sipping their own Kool-Aid.
The best part of making mistakes is learning from them. NERD’s been in the game long enough that if this next album turns out to be a mistake, we know they’ll learn from it, grow and come back better than ever on their fifth album. And if I made a mistake in assuming this album will be as messy as its singles, may I never again count my chickens before they’ve hatched.
No_One Ever Really Dies drops this Friday, December 15.