The image Pharrell Williams has fashioned for himself is that of a student of popular culture. From his BBC/Ice Cream clothing labels to his production work as one half of the Neptunes, he has managed to successfully compile popular styles from all over the world, past and present, and implement them in a form that the contemporary consumer public could understand. The success of these endeavors is what allowed him – along with Neptunes partner Chad Hugo and childhood friend Shae – to unveil the N.E.R.D. project in 2001.
The concept of N.E.R.D. has generally been interpreted as the Neptunes’ rock-and-roll side project. What it really has been is a venue for a group of artists whose primary avenue of success lies elsewhere to stop worrying about what the general public wants to hear and experiment without boundaries or financial worries to create the music they feel like making. This formula has undoubtedly resulted in some uneven collections of music, but has also spawned some truly unique, beautiful pieces – most of which were scattered throughout their 2002 debut In Search Of…. Four years after a sufficient sophomore release, 2004’s Fly or Die – which was short on the occasional moments of sublimity of its predecessor – comes Seeing Sounds. While nothing on it quite meets the highest marks of their debut, Seeing Sounds is the group’s most consistent album to date and perhaps their best overall.
Seeing Sounds is more club than rock-and-roll. Nothing on it could be viewed as concession to popular tastes. Almost every track utilizes multiple movements and radical shifts. The lead single “Everyone Nose” is a frantic, multilayered club-jam about girls doing coke in the bathroom that breaks briefly into apologetic spaced-out soul crooning before continuing in its frenzy. Still, the songs are never lost in the confusion and become familiar relatively quickly.
As a producer’s album Seeing Sounds is first-class. The Neptunes have faded somewhat from the pantheon of elite production entities in the past couple years, but their signature drums and spaced-out samples sound as good as ever here. The overall balance between live and electronic instrumentation is also the best they have managed on any of the N.E.R.D. albums. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of Seeing Sounds is that not a single backing track is an unworthy addition to the Neptunes excellent repertoire.
While hardly anyone would expect bad beats on an N.E.R.D. album, songwriting has been the area where the crew has received the most criticism. As if Pharrell wasn’t already the group’s rock star, he is even more front-and-center on Seeing Sounds. The album is structured in a way that pushes most of the hyped-up tracks toward the front with Pharrell in his Skateboard P rapping style; the second half mostly consists of softer numbers with his signature falsetto crooning. Both aspects of P’s vocalizing have experienced their share of denigration. No, he is not exactly a technically gifted rapper and no, he does not have a beautiful voice in a traditional sense and his lyrics are typically inconsequential in a “saying shit just to sound cool” sort of way, but his magnetism as a vocalist comes through in his choruses, which typically use a catchy phrase or recognizable melody as an anchor for his nonsensical verses. The most positive aspect about Pharrell’s lyrics on Seeing Sounds is that they remain in that arena without venturing into overly explicit sexuality or corny sentimentality as they have on past projects.
Considering what N.E.R.D. represents, Seeing Sounds comes closer to realizing their purpose than anything they’ve done except for maybe the rarely heard, initial, electronic version of their debut. It will take more time to judge the importance of these songs against classics like “Bobby James” and “Run to the Sun” in the context of their career. What can be concluded at this point is that, minor lyrical complaints aside, they have crafted their most consistent album and one of the best genre-blurring club records since M.I.A.’s Kala.