N.E.R.D. - Nothing
Record Label: Star Trak / Interscope
Release Date: November 2, 2010
It's incredibly hard to pinpoint where N.E.R.D. land in terms of genre. In fact, it's almost as hard to lock down what each member contributes to an individual track. While Pharrell Williams takes on most of the vocal and lyrical duties, he and his bandmates Chad Hugo and Shay Haley are basically at-large when it comes to putting a song together. Masters of the quick party igniting tune, N.E.R.D. are constantly bucking expectations and putting together unique and catchy albums that refuse to adhere to a single style. Nothing in their history showcases this more perfectly than the double release of their first album.
In Search Of... saw its first release in 2001 to rave reviews. The initial version of this album was typical N.E.R.D. fare, carried by the plethora of inspirations Williams and Hugo used extensively under the production moniker The Neptunes. Williams was unhappy with these comparisons, and set out to essentially remake In Search Of... with an entirely different sound. The second version was released in 2002 as a collaboration with Minneapolis natives Spymob, and used live instrumentation in place of the digital percussion and synthesizers. This second take at a debut album would establish N.E.R.D.'s roots in genre melding and formed the basis for their unique sound as their career continued.
Nothing begins like a sonic rollercoaster. The intro track “Party People” is classic N.E.R.D. Almost frantic in its party portrayal, the mixture of keys and clapping drum rhythms matches perfectly with Williams' typical uninhibited lyricism. The hook is a bit tiresome, but tends to blend into the background on repeated listens. The real treat is a short verse by rapper T.I., who details his preference for group sex in a humorous, yet altogether too brief manner. Add in a huge horn section during the chorus, and you have the perfect opener for an album of Nothing's pedigree.
The album immediately slows with a segue into “Hypnotize U.” While I was less than impressed with this song when it was first performed on Letterman, it really comes into its own on this album. The downer to the opener's adrenaline shot, “Hypnotize U” is a very stripped down track that highlights Williams' vocal capabilities. While his lyrics may at times be overly sexual for certain audiences, Williams is the master of piecing together double entendre to form catchy lyrics. Daft Punk's production merges with N.E.R.D.'s normal sensibilities in an interesting way, but I was expecting a bit more from the French duo.
Nothing begins to rise slowly as the next track hits. “Help Me” is another very simple track, but is much more ambitious than the songs that precede it. A simple drum rhythm and smooth backing vocals showcase heavy 1970s inspiration, while the verses and occasional horn interruption constantly jockey for position with varying emotions. Williams' lyrics are calm, but are punctuated abruptly by a blaring brass section and keyboards. “Help Me” is unlike anything N.E.R.D. has pulled out before, and it's my hope that they incorporate the sound they created in their future recordings.
Normally, it would be terribly difficult to match up to a trifecta of this magnitude, but Nothing does a great job of hitting you hard and early without becoming too top heavy. “Hot-N-Fun” conjures memories of the Seeing Sounds single “Everyone Nose” with its dirty bass line and repetitive lyrics. The only low point is Nelly Furtado's forgettable-at-best feature. “God Bless Us All” is a bongo and bass driven message from Williams to the younger generation, encouraging them to persevere through whatever hardships life may throw at you and accomplish their dreams. Closer to the end, “It's in The Air” is another swinging, emotional track along the same lines “Help Me” treads. Like many of the tracks on Nothing, trumpets and other brass instruments play a huge part throughout the whole track. The rising intensity of both piano and guitar chords creates an almost fearful atmosphere that surrounds every lyric and chorus.
Nothing continues the trend of unique and fun music the N.E.R.D. name has become synonymous with. While less hip-hop than their earlier albums, Williams, Hugo, and Haley have done an amazing job of evolving their sound while still remaining relevant in a music scene that easily discards artists at the drop of a hat. Unfortunately, it's becoming apparent that Williams has a hard time writing about anything besides parties and women. They don't hinder the album in any way, but it's a little disappointing that a group that continues to make huge strides in production hasn't made the same changes to the lyric writing process. Overall, Nothing is the next logical step in N.E.R.D.'s career, and provides something interesting while at the same time retaining the same mood that made their earlier releases such entertaining experiences.