[20 January 2011]
It’s probably best to start with the quick and dirty history of N.E.R.D. since we’re discussing what’s ostensibly a greatest hits collection here. The production duo of Pharell Williams and Chad Hugo, collectively known as the Neptunes, put together huge hits for various hip-hop, R&B, and pop artists (Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass”, Nelly’s “Hot in Herre”, Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4U”) throughout the ‘90s and early ‘00s before deciding to create their own band, N.E.R.D. Their first album, In Search Of… was critically acclaimed and spawned a pair of minor hits, “Rockstar” and “Lapdance”. Their second album, Fly or Die was not nearly as successful, commercially or critically, although it did spawn another minor hit with “She Wants to Move”. Then N.E.R.D. fought with their label, Virgin Records, decided to “break up”, and predictably got together again a few years later once Virgin let them out of their contract. They’ve since released a pair of albums on Interscope, including the new Nothing, which hit stores a mere two months before this compilation.
Which means that The Best of N.E.R.D. is strictly a cash-in move from Virgin Records and is not endorsed by the group in any way. It also means that the collection only features songs from the first two N.E.R.D. albums, plus a pair of remixes and another pair of rarities from the Lapdance 12”. Let’s make it clear: There is no reason to buy this album. It is about as inessential a “best of” collection as has ever been created. It necessarily ignores half of the band’s output. No matter how you feel about Seeing Sounds or Nothing, a N.E.R.D. greatest hits compilation pretty much has to include tracks like “Everyone Nose (All the Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom)”, “Spaz”, “Hypnotize U”, and “Hot-N-Fun”. Alternatively, a true “Best of N.E.R.D.” would be comprised largely of songs from In Search Of…, since it’s far and away their best album. Which would mean curious listeners could simply purchase In Search Of… and pick and choose a handful of songs from their latter albums.
Which is pretty much what Virgin did in putting this collection together. A whopping eight of In Search Of…‘s 12 songs show up here, while only four from Fly or Die appear. When Williams and Hugo (and their buddy, third band member Shay Hayley) first put together In Search Of…, they used a ton of samples to do it, similar to their usual Neptunes production style. They famously decided to scrap that version of the album and re-record the whole thing with Minneapolis rockers Spymob as their live backing band. The result was an album that successfully merged rock, hip-hop, and R&B styles and sounded simultaneously raw and meticulous. With Fly or Die Williams and Hugo went back to doing it themselves and subsequently lost all of N.E.R.D.‘s raw immediacy.
That dichotomy is clearly evident on The Best of N.E.R.D. Eight years later, “Rockstar” and “Lapdance” still sound punishingly hard, with pounding drumwork and great fuzzed-out guitar tones. Skip a few tracks forward to Fly or Die‘s rocker of a title track, and it just sounds like any major label pop-rock act. There’s little distinguishing about it. In Search Of… R&B song “Provider” sounds appropriately melancholy, with its narrator sadly explaining why he’s been forced into running drugs. Right after it, Fly or Die power ballad “Maybe” has lost-love lyrics that just sound like generic mope-rock. The only Fly or Die track that emerges mostly unscathed through direct comparison to its predecessors is “She Wants to Move”. With its thumping toms, clean guitars, minor-key piano, and handclaps, it’s a slice of outer-space funk that is something completely different than what the band was doing on its first album. Of course, the lyrics are terrible (“Her ass is a spaceship I want to ride”???), but that’s something of a N.E.R.D. hallmark. These are the same guys who were so absent in self-awareness that they inserted the refrain “I dare a motherfucker to come in my face” into a song called “Lapdance.” The genuinely touching lyrics of “Provider” turned out to be a rare exception.
Anyway, aside from being able to compare the mostly-great songs from their first album directly to the mostly-average or worse songs from their second album, there’s absolutely no value in The Best of N.E.R.D. Seriously, if you’re interested in the best of N.E.R.D., just buy In Search Of… and download “She Wants to Move” and maybe the other latter-day tracks I mentioned earlier and call it a day.