The Underrated: N.E.R.D

By @TrueGodImmortal 

For many, The Neptunes are up there with the greatest producers ever. Pharrell (nostly known to the casual listener) and the underrated Chad Hugo would become infamous for working with a lot of the top rappers and singers in the music industry, from Babyface to Jay-Z to Mystikal to Britney Spears to The Clipse to Snoop Dogg to many, many more. With their contributions via hip hop and R&B solidified, The Neptunes decided to embark on a new journey: becoming artists. Now, for most of us, Pharrell as an artist wasn't something that was shocking, as he would lend hooks and harmonized vocals to many of the songs he produced. Still, when 2002 rolled around, we were treated to a pleasant surprise when Pharrell, Chad, and Shae Haley (who was mostly unknown to the listening public) released their first album together as N.E.R.D. titled "In Search Of...". However, 2002 wasn't the inception of the group, nor was it the true beginning of the story. Today, we wanted to look at N.E.R.D., their history as a group, their sound, their albums, and what made them so special. We're also waiting for that 5th album from them, but that's another story for another day. Let's take a look at N.E.R.D., why they're underrated, and the work they've put in.

Back in high school, Chad and Pharrell were close friends, working on music together, making beats and performing in groups with another name you might be familiar with, Timbaland. They would soon meet Shae, who would eventually become a part of the crew and work with them. Chad was known to beatbox and Shae was essentially a dancer in the early days of their come up. After Teddy Riley began working with Chad and Pharrell, Shae took a bit of backseat, but patience is a virtue they say. When the Neptunes finally got their shine as a production duo, they knew the time was right to bring their group back together and the official formation of N.E.R.D. was complete. They made an appearance on Kelis' album Kaleidoscope, assisting on the track "Ghetto Children". This was their first major release appearance and a landmark in N.E.R.D. history. The group was now official.

Orchestrating The Sound
The sound of N.E.R.D. was really hard to pin down. At times it ranged from electric funk to hardcore rock, while sometimes it would lean towards a more hip hop and R&B vibe. The thing that makes their sound unique is mostly that it can't be placed in a box. You can't really describe the sound of N.E.R.D. in one word, it needs multiple layers. Initially, the digital production style that the Neptunes employed was the basis of their sound, but eventually they would incorporate more instruments live to enhance the sound and make it more authentic. In terms of lyricism, N.E.R.D. is essentially more juvenile than their counterparts, which was done on purpose. N.E.R.D. was seemingly targeted to connect to the teenager experience, but also discussed things later on in their albums that weren't necessarily "teenager friendly". When combining the fun yet slightly lyrics to the funky rock soul of their production, you get an interesting clash, and one that can't be boxed into a label. That's what makes the N.E.R.D. sound so much fun. It's hard to define.

The N.E.R.D. catalog is rather short, with only 4 albums in their arsenal, but each album represents a different time for the group in a way. Let's take a look at their projects.

*In Search Of....(2002)
-The overseas version of this album sounds different. More digital. The US version of the album features live instrumentation from Spymob. Granted, I had no idea who Spymob was at the time, but they took the music and made it sound even better than the digital version. This album was fun, and full of tracks that you could hear in parties (not necessarily the parties that I was going to, but parties nonetheless) and rock festivals like "Lapdance", "Rock Star", and "Brain". They also kept the soulful element in tact with songs like "Bobby James", "Provider", and "Things Are Getting Better". My favorite tracks on this one would be "Stay Together", as it is exactly the perfect bridge between the Neptunes sound and the N.E.R.D. sound. It's melodic, but the drums are fun, and the vocals range from funk and rock tinged to the Neptunes smooth soul. It's a perfect end to the album as well. Overall, this album is a solid listen and though it's not my favorite N.E.R.D. project, I'd put it at no. 3 personally (debatable at no. 2).

*Fly Or Die (2004)
-My favorite of all the N.E.R.D. projects easily. I would almost consider this one a classic. It's a bit more rock than the first one, but it works really well. Starting off with the rock tinged "Don't Worry About It", which sees Pharrell and his vocals coasting over the instrumentation. Pharrell is far from a good singer, but it always seems to work when he harmonizes, and this opening track definitely works. The second track "Fly Or Die" sounds like a funky rock track and is clearly for the teenage experience (which I was pretty much living), and although I didn't relate to the content of the N.E.R.D. music, I was still drawn in by the sound and the vocals. Their lyrics on this album go from dark to upbeat in a second, so this was an album I just decided to listen and enjoy for what it was. The one song I wasn't too fond of was the bouncy track "Jump" (pun intended), which wasn't bad by any stretch, but just didn't work for me. I enjoyed "Backseat Love" and of course the first single "She Wants To Move", but when N.E.R.D. kicks off with "Breakout", the production was too smooth and leads into an upbeat vibe that has become one of my favorite songs on the album.

For me though, the album hits the highest height when we reach the 2nd half following "Wonderful Place", which has one of the most smooth and soulful productions on the entire album. The hidden track here was one of my favorites, as the simple guitar riffs and the interesting Pharrell vocals carry "Waiting for You" to epic levels. I like "Drill Sergeant", but I could have done with the hidden track on this one, as it added very little to overall feel of the track. Another solid track "Thrasher" follows and it's exactly what you'd expect by the title. It's Neptunes rock and the melodies here are amazing once again. The 2nd single from the album "Maybe" is another favorite of mine, and the rolling drum pattern is a great way to kick it off atop of the Pharrell vocals. The lyrics in most of these songs aren't deep and they shouldn't be expected to be that anyways. This is an album for teenage angst, fun, and it saves the best for the last. After "The Way She Dances" concludes, we go into the somber vibe of "Chariot Of Fire", which has an amazing breakdown in the chorus, and one of my favorite melodies on the entire album. However, it is the hidden track that signals the best song of the album. In what might be the most insightful song on the album, the soulful melody behind "Find My Way" sees Pharrell paint a picture to find his way back to his love. In essence, this entire album seems rooted in this concept, but what's not specified is if N.E.R.D. is talking more to music or an actual love interest. That's partially why this album is so great to me. The definition of it is unknown. It's all speculation. Perhaps there is no meaning and N.E.R.D. made songs they thought were fun with light lyrics. Or maybe there was a deeper meaning behind more of these songs. That's the beauty of it. From tracks that talk about bullying ("Thrasher"), rebellion (a majority of the rock tinged tracks), love, and loss, this album has a cohesive vibe that was lacking in the first project.

*Seeing Sounds (2008)
-I remember hearing this album and I was taken aback. It wasn't really like the first two N.E.R.D albums to me and that was actually a welcome change. The sound was a bit more mature and saw Pharrell employing more spoken or rapped vocals than before. I wasn't really a fan of the biggest single "Everybody Nose (All The Girls Standing In Line For The Bathroom)", but the concept was pretty interesting. Surprisingly, I found myself not a big fan of a few of the songs here like "Windows", the N.E.R.D. version of "Happy" (not to be confused with the Pharrell version years later), "Kill Joy", and the by the numbers "Laugh About It". It's not the songs are bad, they just do nothing for me. Now, the songs I did enjoy here, like "You Know What", "Anti Manner", "Sooner or Later", "Yeah You", and the solid track "Spaz" which became a single, all worked to do exactly what you wanted from N.E.R.D. and then some. This album shows the maturity while keeping what N.E.R.D. was always about: chaos. Unlike the first two albums, this was mostly written by Pharrell, and in a way, it shows. Seeing Sounds isn't better than the first two albums, but it works in its own way, and that's what matters the most. Oddly enough, this is probably my least favorite of the N.E.R.D. albums.

*Nothing (2010)
-I was unaware of what N.E.R.D. were planning with this album, but I was still interested to take a listen. Interestingly enough, this album has some of the most infectious songs and tracks from the N.E.R.D. catalog, and it also featured less live instrumentation, which is surprising given the mantra of the band. It was a different way of doing things for the band, as they didn't include live instrumentation, but worked mostly from some high tech digital programs and also utilized their keyboards for the sounds. The final result for the album works better than I expected, and though I didn't listen to this when it first dropped, when I finally got to listen, I was surprised at how solid this was. Tracks like "Hypnotize U", "Help Me", "Victory", "Perfect Defect", and my personal favorite "I've Seen The Light/Inside of Clouds" all work amazing and the best part? They follow each other one by one. It's the best sequence of tracks in the entire N.E.R.D. catalog honestly if you also include the 60's and 70's soul inspired "God Bless Us All" and another favorite of mine "Life As A Fish". I'd crown this as the 2nd best N.E.R.D. album, and the only missteps are the tracks with features like "Hot N Fun", "Party People", and the Amazon bonus track "Ride That Thang" as Nelly Furtado, T.I., and Famlay sort of mess up the vibe. Overall, this album features one of the best sequences in Pharrell's career with albums, and some of the greatest N.E.R.D. songs. If you've not heard this one, please do so now. It's worth the listen.

Final Thoughts
N.E.R.D. was a great group and made some amazing music together over the years, and even though a 4 album catalog isn't much, they have a lot of solid songs and a good legacy to leave behind. Truthfully, considering the direction their last album took, I'd love to hear a new N.E.R.D. album and what sounds they could come up with. There was an album rumored in 2014, but it never materialized. Hopefully in 2018, N.E.R.D. feels the need to drop one last project and bless the world. Who knows. Regardless, The Neptunes are solidified as one of the greatest production duos ever, and N.E.R.D. helped add to their legacy even more. While not a legendary group in music, N.E.R.D. made an impact and reminded us of the versatility that the Neptunes could bring us all.



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