N.E.R.D plays with expectations of our favorite artists on newest project
It may be the start of a new year, but with the lack of anything substantial having been released in the first week of 2018, we’re going to be checking out one last record from 2017 before we totally say goodbye to the past year.
That album is one of the later releases from 2017, “NO_ONE EVER REALLY DIES,” the newest project from funk rap/synth punk group N.E.R.D.
Now, if you haven’t heard of N.E.R.D, you’ve definitely heard of their lead singer, Pharrell Williams, who, depending on your level of investment in the music world, you either know as the nearly ubiquitous singer-rapper-producer hybrid or as the guy who did “Happy.”
Either way, though, it’s important to understand that the music Pharrell makes with N.E.R.D is drastically different from the stuff you’d hear from him elsewhere. And what makes “NO_ONE EVER REALLY DIES” so exciting is that it even sounds different from earlier records from the group, even if that excitement starts to peter out toward the end.
Relying more on featured artists here than previously, N.E.R.D creates a delightfully off-kilter sound by employing those featured artists in really strange ways.
Check out early album cut “Voilà.” Seeing Gucci Mane featured on this track, I immediately assumed I’d be in for a pretty standard Atlanta-style trap song. I mean, what else has Guwop ever done?
But it turns out I underestimated the trap rapper, because N.E.R.D brings out a hidden talent of his: really catchy choruses. Hearing Gucci straddle the line between speaking and singing on his oddball chorus is a ton of fun, and it gets firmly stuck in my head every time I hear the song. Something about the way he slides back and forth between only a handful of notes just sounds so 1970s cool to me, like something Barry White would do.
But contrast that with Pharrell’s singing on the track. He switches a few times between his normal crooning and a sort of punk rock style barking, all over shimmery funk-rock instrumentation.
That is, at least, before the track breaks down into a Jamaican dancehall style cut toward the end, featuring rapper Wale spitting a hypnotic bar.
On “1000,” Pharrell and Future sound like they’re going to lead a riot. Pharrell sounds off with the sort of energy you’d hear on a Bad Brains song, while Future’s autotuned chanting is eerie and ominous; it’s easy to picture the rapper as a dark, futuristic (pun not intended) leader before an adoring crowd.
The album kicks off in an exciting way with the New Orleans-style hip-hop track “Lemon,” which features Rihanna’s deepest plunge into straight-up rapping that we’ve seen her do so far. Rihanna has such a great command over her rapping skills on this song that it makes me want to hear more real rap songs from her.
“Don’t Don’t Do It!’ is perhaps the album’s most exciting track, though. Kendrick Lamar raps frenetically over instrumentals that are the closest to a traditional punk track on the album. It’s a bizarre juxtaposition for perhaps the top rapper in the game right now to be spitting over a punk beat, and it recalls the excitement of 1970s New York City when both punk and rap were developing side by side on the same streets.
The remaining featured artists on the record, though, do little to make themselves stand out.
The late album track “Rollinem 7’s” features André 3000, but it’s a grossly bloated song. Pharrell doesn’t do nearly enough to justify the lengthy build-up to André’s verse, and by the time we get to it, we realize it’s probably the most boring verse André has put out in recent memory.
Similarly, other late album features from Ed Sheeran, M.I.A. and a second verse from Kendrick Lamar are merely serviceable. They’re not bad in any definable way, but they aren’t good either. They’re just occupying space.
Ultimately, “NO_ONE EVER REALLY DIES” is an album that is the definition of front-loaded. Before the halfway point, nearly every track is an essential banger, but things start to level out in the direction of “pretty good background party music” the longer the album carries on.
But if there’s a saving grace for this N.E.R.D record, it’s that, even at its absolute worst, it never gets much worse than “pretty good.” So I’d say it’s worth a spin.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan.
Album: ‘NO_ONE EVER REALLY DIES’
Label: i am OTHER, Columbia
Best Tracks: ‘Lemon,’ ‘1000,’ ‘Don’t Don’t Do It!’
Worst Track: ‘Rollinem 7’s’