Even Pharrell’s leftovers can still be counted on for some semblance of a good time.
For the longest time, N.E.R.D. was looked at like less of a band and more an extended repository for whatever sounds Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo couldn’t work into the hits they produced for various hip hop and pop stars as The Neptunes. Alongside friend and collaborator Shae Haley, N.E.R.D. was a genre bending side project for the most ubiquitous radio force of the early ‘00s, less a dumping ground for stillborn sonics and more a safe space to indulge in idiosyncratic ideas and curious textures without having to worry about whether or not Britney Spears would want to sing over them.
Their discography, taken as a whole, is pretty scattershot; debut In Search Of… is the lone undisputed classic, with its sun-drenched skate funk a big influence on Tyler, The Creator and Frank Ocean. The rest of their work runs the gamut from astonishing to execrable, differing in quality and execution, but never wavering in boundless experimentation. No One Ever Really Dies, their first release since 2010’s entirely forgettable Nothing, is being touted as an exuberant reunion for the band, but one cursory glance at the liner notes reveals a more depressing truth. After a decade of being misidentified as an outlet for Pharrell’s wanton noodling, the project has devolved into precisely that.
Sure, the promotional interviews paint a picture of a re-energized band getting back together to make brash, revolutionary music for the Trump era. Hell, if you listen to any of the album’s largely incoherent lyrics, the supporting evidence for such a narrative is there in abundance. But more than ever, this feels less like a group effort and more like Pharrell throwing studio leftovers into a pot and coercing his friends into calling it a stew, an unenthusiastic potluck of convenience. He’s all over the songwriting credits without Hugo or Haley, with the music feeling less eclectic and more like barely fleshed out scraps that wouldn’t fit his recent solo outings or movie scoring work. It’s something of a letdown for longtime fans hoping for a return to first album greatness, or at least the second coming of later glory days, like 2008’s Seeing Sounds.
Luckily, even Pharrell’s leftovers can still be counted on for some semblance of a good time. The album’s first half is littered with haphazard proof that this lackluster approach can still yield positive results. Lead single and album opener “Lemon” is a raucous party track with an undeniable Rihanna feature that would probably have been a bigger hit if it wasn’t so blatantly recorded a couple of years ago. The A-side is packed with more star power, like Future (“1000”), Kendrick Lamar (“Don’t Don’t Do It!”) and a truly resplendent Gucci Mane (“Voilà”), but the second half delivers diminishing returns.
The further down the tracklist, the likelier you are to hear over and under baked concepts awkwardly sharing space (“Kites”) or needlessly epic misfires (“Lightning Fire Magic Prayer”). There’s a solid EP in here somewhere, something to tide fans over until a proper reunion album could be conceived of with more motivation than the lazy idea that anyone in the world was waiting for a zeitgeist grabbing political record from the people that made “Lapdance.” Instead, this is the main event when it barely functions as the opening bout.