After their divisive Seeing Sounds, the Neptunes' rock 'n' blues alter-ego returns with their funkiest, most focused effort in years.
For all the Neptunes' (Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo and at times Shay Haley) glamorous Billboard credentials, it is interesting how mediocre most of their self-billed projects turn out. While their 2001/2002 debut In Search Of... turned plenty of heads with its soulful vibe, Pharrell's intriguing if not insightful lyrics and the bombastic lead single "Lapdance", the rest of their solo careers have been fairly shaky. First, there was the Clones project, a somewhat slipshod compilation of hip-hop collaborations under the Neptunes moniker. And then there was the evolution of N*E*R*D, moving from the juvenile emo pop of Fly or Die (complete with a Good Charlotte collaboration) to the cluster of well-intentioned stillborn dance beats known as Seeing Sounds. In each iteration of the trio, it was sometimes hard to tell Williams and Hugo were veterans of the Teddy Riley compound in the early '90s. Rather, N*E*R*D has often felt like a crew of talented kids strongly lacking in focus, concocting half-baked ideas stuffed with could-have-been melodies and adventurous instrumentation that often leads nowhere distinctive.
Nothing arrives on the heels of these expectations, and against all odds seems to have conflated the band's ramshackle history into perhaps their neatest, most forward package yet. Like Seeing Sounds, Nothing is an album focused intensely on the dancefloor. Album-opener and secondary single "Party People" is practically an old school big beat jam, slamming chants and come-ons together in a high energy romp that barely finds time to let T.I. continue his winning streak of womanizing, pulsing radio features. Lead single "Hot 'n' Fun", with its hints towards both Rick James' "Give It to Me Baby" and Mike Watt's style with Minutemen -- as well as an equally squeezed Nelly Furtado feature -- has prepared listeners in much the same way since it's debut in May. The funky, dance vibe of these tracks is upheld throughout Nothing, though the rest of the music here ends up taking a more soulful, balladic stance that will bring to mind In Search Of.... For some N*E*R*D fans, I'm sure that's almost all that needs to be said.
The real highlight here is "Hypnotize U". Over a slow tide of synthesizers and a thudding house 808, Pharrell tunes his vocals as close to Prince as possible and coos come ons softly into a woman's ear. Pulling the scene together is the group's first collaboration with French superstars Daft Punk since their "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" remix, this time with the Frenchmen doing the honors of production and mixing. The result is a similar concoction of hazy lounge foreplay and spaced out ambience, and goes a long way towards instilling goodwill for the rest of the album. Like the rest of the tracks here, "Hypnotize U" is just about the last thing I would have expected from N*E*R*D in 2010 -- tight, focused, mature. Unfortunately, while Pharrell shows a few more signs of more reigned in lyrical direction throughout Nothing, for the most part his lyrics are as non-sensical as they've ever been.
"I've Seen the Light", "Help Me" and "Life as a Fish" recall specifically the juvenilia of Fly or Die, as Pharrell sloganeers his way through a few of the group's more brooding numbers with seemingly strong indifference towards whether the audience understands his point. His lyrics are oftentimes both smug and indirect, which can probably lead a lot of listeners to think he considers himself smarter or more creative than us. Which may be true, but it's rarely a musical trait that induces warm and fuzzy affection from the listener. Luckily, this is balanced on the low key "Victory", another strong highlight, and his pitch perfect performances on the dancier tunes. While it's still surprising a 40 year old, super-producer megastar is writing songs this unrelatable, Pharrell's melodic sense does a good job obscuring this fact and the band's tighter-than-ever playing usually renders the lyrics background fodder.
The funky influences of Nothing really come out with the deluxe edition, though. While the regular album has the aforementioned Rick James nod and "Perfect Defect", a dope marriage of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye's exploitation soundtracks to modern pop, it's in the bonus tracks that many of the '70s influences really come out. "It's in the Air" shoves "Hot 'n' Fun" out of the way (the basic album ends on that note, which just seems awkward) with a vocal sample ranting against the failures of the press corps to do... what, I'm not entirely sure. But the point is to turn N*E*R*D into something of a makeshift Funkadelic, opening a brief sequence of Clintonian rockers with apt titles like "Sacred Temple", "I Wanna Jam" and "The Man". Musically this segment isn't as strong as the middle section, but it definitely casts the album in a more definitive light and does away with the awkwardly abrupt ending "Hot 'n' Fun" provides. In the end, Nothing may not be about much more than that lyrically, but in every musical sense it is easily the group's greatest personal achievement since In Search Of... and something longtime fans of the group should greatly appreciate. At this point it seems fair to say N*E*R*D may never deliver on their once-extraordinary potential, but if they can keep churning out statements as distinct as Nothing, both the band and their listeners should be more than satisfied.