Not Trying to Lose
The wallpaper’s moving. My arms and my legs leave a blur when I swipe.
—N.E.R.D., ““Wonderful Place”
I want my live records to sound like they’re programmed and my programmed records to sound like they’re live. Once you can label us as something, we want to get away from that.
—Pharrell Williams, in Sasha Frere-Jones, “The Sound” (New York Times Magazine, 8 February 2004)
In recent weeks, N.E.R.D. were all over TV. Sort of. While the band—Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo, and Shay Sheldon Haley), plus backup—made the sorts of appearances you’d expect to promote a new album, they were also publicly feuding with their now-erstwhile parent label, on the grounds that Virgin did not put enough effort into selling Fly or Die. They have since left Virgin and signed with Interscope, to the tune of $3 million for three years.
The appearances they made have been what you’d expect. For every occasion—TRL and SNL, Letterman and Ellen, Live with Regis & Kelly—they performed the hot-popping first single, “She’s Got to Move”, each time showcasing the general awkwardness of the process. The boys come on for their designated minutes, they play (or pretend to play, depending on the venue) their song, and they answer a couple of questions (Ellen: “Does it bother you that people pronounce it ‘nerd’?”). Pharrell sings in his endearingly weak falsetto. He’s been wearing a bright red military jacket, complete with epaulets and medals. It’s a costume choice equal parts Michael, Prince, the Nutcracker, and the Beatles, at once charming and strange.
Fly or Die is like that. Classic rocky riffs, funky rolls, floating signifiers, lots of lovey sonic references, from Steely Dan to Frank Zappa to Curtis Mayfield. On first listen, you may wonder at its apparent loosey-gooseyness, its seeming immature aesthetic and appeal (“This is for the kids,” Pharrell opens the title track. “This is only for the kids”). The motley effect is intriguing, the sweet, simple sounds both lilting and odd. It’s not a lot different from the first record, In Search of…, which surprised critics with its straight up pop-airiness, given Pharrell and Chad’s Neptunes’ rep, as producers with pizzazz, for Snoop, Britney, Mystikal, Kelis, Jay, Gwen Stefani, ODB, Nelly, Justin, Busta, and yes, okay, on and on (it’s hard to get at N.E.R.D. without making lists, of influences or production credits).
Like their other work, the new album is a function of networking. And so Lenny Kravitz and ?uestlove appear for mad session work on “Maybe” and the Good Charlottes, Joel and Benji Madden, for earnest vocals on “Jump”, one of the pair of songs here that aggressively question authority: “Don’t let massa teach you that we are by ourselves/ Cause trust me, there’s something else.” That something else might be suicide (“I’m checking out,” goes the shuffling hook), but given the anti-suicide emo-activism of Good Charlotte (“Hold On”), the lyrics bear some bit of irony. If the speakers of this track and “Fly or Die” are angsty, alienated kids, they’re also wildly articulate, well-versed wise-asses, more resistant than rebellious, less angry than confused.
“Mommy, daddy, I know you love me,” Pharrell begins “Fly or Die” (which is, as the title suggests, about choices). “Bad grades, play station, restriction: you took it from me… It won’t be long till you see me on the news. Another soul lost at sea while taking a cruise.” Teen suicide meets Gilligan’s Island: identities reflected and options imagined in TV screens. Or again, for “Breakout”, Pharrell warbles charismatically, multiplying his syllabus to approximate the utter embarrassment of adolescence: “I know how you feel, when no one cares… All you can be is you, just cause you’re real, not the plastic type.” So you think.
As familiar (and occasionally tedious) as such teen-against-the-world sentiment can be, the album also excavates it in weirdly complicated ways. In “Thrasher”, the speaker is more exasperated than gloomy. With jangly piano that suggests a puffed-out chest, the lyrics come hard: “Every once in a while, there is some asshole/ Giving you shit cause something in his life won’t fold.” As his problem becomes yours, you can’t “walk away,” but instead must feign roughness: “I’m a thrasher! I’m a thrasher!” Look out for supermadboy. It’s probably easier to do with your boys throwing supportive “Ho! Hos!” on the backing track.
The flipside of the mopey boy pose is the other one that N.E.R.D. has perfected, the nerdy boy with raging hormones (the most evocative visual for this would be Pharrell poking his head through the picket fence in the video for Busta Rhymes’ “Light Your Ass on Fire”, off last year’s Neptunes Present: The Clones, or slightly more subtly, the boys on their hurling through the streets on their bikes in the video for “Lap Dance”). Call it nerdly lusting. The first track on Fly Or Die, “Don’t Worry About It”, entwines feedback and Beatles-ish backing vocals with appreciation for the most splendiferous lovely: “She’s bad ass.” Pleading, the nerdy boy seeks attention, if only barely and predictably insecurely: “I just wanna feel you/ If you don’t want to give it up, don’t worry ‘bout it.”
“Backseat Love” opens with a car engine, then TV-style-space-age-static, and a pile of repeated guitar and keyboard chords and gasps to resemble a bumbling, driving lust, as Pharrell works his way through obvious metaphors: “No seatbelt, no need to buckle up/ Emergency brake, no need for the clutch/ But wait, don’t get a ticket, girl!” It’s goofy and graceless, clambering all over itself, like car sex.
“She Wants to Move” takes another tack. Following dog barks (and again, deploys Pharrell’s breathing as beat), the address alternates: first, “She makes me think of lightning and skies. She’s sexy!” She’s also observed from a distance, understood as someone else’s property (“Mister, look at your girl, she loves it/ I can see it in her eyes,” drums thrilling to her hips). Second, the song speaks directly to “you” who moves, seductively and beyond reach. Revisiting this elusive-object concept for “The Way She Dances”, the boys turn positively squealy: “Calling all cars, please arrest her/ She’s a criminal in my dreams/ She just stole my heart, it’s an A.P.B.!”
These slightly warped combinations—resentment and frustration, yearning and insight, naïveté and fascination—aren’t so different from the simple-seeming sentiments on most pop records, even if the instrumentation, vocals, and programming are unusually layered and carefully produced. The track that twists such summation one last time is “Drill Sergeant”. Beginning with the sound of marching feet, it’s a rousing, as well as plaintive anti-military song, specific to the current administration’s elaborately constructed worldview. “Drill sergeant, I got a word for you,” goes the chorus. “I’m not going to war… You must think you’re Orson Wells and this is 1954/ You don’t understand liberty, until someone speaks for yours.”
Protest songs have lost some urgency as the war against Iraq has turned into U.S. occupation, so it’s not a little refreshing to hear an album made “for the kids” address this urgent issue (this especially as it seems increasingly likely that conscription will be necessary in the future). “Drill Sergeant” underlines the insidious nature of patriotic discourse, when wielded by so-called authorities (“Shame on you, saying, ‘Serve your country while I’m young’/ Shame on you, mixing my mind up, handing me guns”).
The critique doesn’t stop there. N.E.R.D. goes on to challenge the practices and practicalities of war: “You level their buildings, destroy their soil… Did you finally figure where to run that oil?” It’s a pointed question, and it speaks to the anxiety that threads throughout Fly or Die, in various forms. If adults are deceptive, if information and experience can’t be trusted, how can kids make sensible choices?