After the seminal In Search Of…, N.E.R.D.’s offerings throughout the noughties were but a string of disappointing releases. As the collective fell off everyone’s radar, its most prominent member, Pharrell Williams, began his meteoric rise to stardom, though Chad Hugo and Williams would continue to produce together as The Neptunes. Menawhile, Williams’ work became synonymous with hit single after hit single, year after year. While he wasn’t working on frivolous commercial albums like Girl and on film soundtracks such as Despicable Me, Despicable Me 2, and the nerve-wracking conclusion, Despicable Me 3, his more discreet production work absolutely took off. As Williams’ and The Neptunes’ resume of production credits grew, they presented some of the most off-kilter, original and creative production the hip-hop scene had ever encountered. They’d transformed what would otherwise be bland pop songs, into something dynamic and full of life. The duo had carved themselves a place in hip-hop’s history after producing Clipse’s monstrous Hell Hath No Fury, an absolutely electric piece of work.
“The album blends the hardest, most experimental shades of hip-hop with the ethos of pop music almost seamlessly”
Cut to 2017 and Williams is now a household name. First single ‘Lemon’ is released out of left-field with only sparse cryptic marketing. And not too long after, this album is announced.
NO ONE EVER REALLY DIES is striking from the get go. The album art is bizarre and strange, vulgar and yet memorable, with a woman donning a foil grill, shot in a style vaguely reminiscent of Terry Richardson. The production on this album is alive, booming and undeniably fierce, exploring new ground effortlessly song by song. The album blends the hardest, most experimental shades of hip-hop with the ethos of pop music almost seamlessly. Energetic performances from a wide selection of guest vocalists, ranging from Gucci Mane to Ed Sheeran (who is surprisingly decent on this) to Kendrick with the highly varied production and beat switches, make for an engaging and addictive listen. The album starts off strong, with hard hitters like ‘Lemon’ and ‘Voila’ leading the way, the latter featuring an insanely catchy hook with Gucci Mane. For the fifth track, we are gifted with ‘Don’t Do It!’, featuring Kendrick, arguably the best song on this album. Pulsating with short guitar stabs, the track explores some dense lyrical ground regarding police brutality and racial unrest, a recurring theme on the album.
“The production on this album is alive, booming and undeniably fierce”
Tracks 6 to 8 are a short lull. While there are attempts to explore new sounds and ideas, they sadly fail to pay off in this stretch. ‘ESP’ is generally dull, poorly structured and unable to be saved by production; the same goes for ‘Lightning Fire Magic Prayer’, and ‘Rollinem 7’s’. The diamond in the mud, however, is André 3000’s brief but fiery verse.
Things pick up again afterwards, with ‘Kites’, featuring M.I.A, Kendrick, and some of the most hypnotic production on the record. The combination of M.I.A’s woozy delivery and Kendrick’s razor sharp flow is a little jarring, but certainly makes a refreshing change from the stagnant previous few tracks. However, ‘Secret Life of Tigers’ is Williams at his most #woke, with lyrics turning from an accessory of the production to obnoxious and silly, making it hard to take the song seriously. This is all rather unfortunate as the song could have evidently been so much more. The album finishes with ‘Lifting You’ featuring Ed Sheeran, where he isn’t absolutely dreadful.
“Pulsating with short guitar stabs, the track explores dense lyrical ground regarding police brutality and racial unrest, a recurring theme on the album”
Things end on a relaxed and decidedly limp note, with lax production that sticks out in the album, and not in a good way, for it was the more aggressive and edgy production that really set the earlier tracks apart.
Through several listens, it has become evident that we do indeed have a good album over here, but its inconsistencies stop it from being a truly great album. While most ideas are original and new, some are plagued by structural and lyrical issues, Williams often leaving much to be desired, especially given the difficult topics he tries to cover. Despite all this, the album is mostly enjoyable, and given some more time, I reckon this album will make its mark in the future as quintessential N.E.R.D.
Artist: N.E.R.D. Label: Columbia. Top Tracks: Lemon; Voilà; Don’t Do It!; Deep Down Body Thurst. For Fans Of: Tyler, the Creator, Clipse. 51 minutes