I have to wonder where N.E.R.D’s been hiding my whole life. This is Pharrell Williams’ group with Chad Hugo and Shay Haley; at this point they have six albums under their belt, and this is their first project in seven years. After falling in love with the first single off the album, Lemon, I went back to take a look at the rest of their discography. Their most critically acclaimed project, In Search Of, struck me as pretty special- it was originally released in 2001 with mainly synth-oriented beats; then it was re-released in 2002 with the electronic backings replaced by a rock driven sound with live guitars and drums. For its time, this direct mix between rock and hip hop was pretty much unheard of, which is a lot of what makes it such a significant project (but it helps that it’s packed with straight bangers nearly impossible not to enjoy).
And this album here, although different in a lot of ways, still has the same infectious energy and hints of experimentation that N.E.R.D has exhibited in the past. It dabbles in so many different genres, it’s honestly a lot to take in; there are hints of pop, electronic, funk, even post-punk here, and the majority of these songs pull it off so well. Pharrell’s vocals also have so much character to them which is something that makes a pretty big difference in how compelling these songs are; in tracks like 1000, Voila, or ESP, his delivery is so quirky and unique and adds so much to the impact of the album. This is unlike any other album I’ve heard this year; and in general, really.
The album starts with Lemon, which… is just a fucking amazing song, guys. The production here is so energetic and dynamic, with its infectious synth lead, vocal samples and hard-hitting bassline, and its transitions from beat to beat that feel so natural. Rihanna’s verse here is incredible here too; god damn. Yeah, I don’t know if I’ve ever liked Rihanna better than I like her on this performance. From there we have a more piano driven track in Deep Down Body Thurst. This song takes an obvious political standpoint; something that’s seen in multiple other areas of the album following it. It touches specifically on corporate and political corruption, and Trump’s proposal to build a wall to keep out immigrants. The sonic landscape caught me off guard slightly on first listen since it starts with such a soft tone so early on in the album, but the more I listen to it in context of the entire project, the more I enjoy it. The production is straightforward but effective with the subtle piano leads that build up into a guitar riff and drums.
The infectious drive and liveliness that Lemon carried is seen again in songs like Voila and 1000. Especially 1000, which is a total explosion of energy and undeniably catchy- it’s synth driven, but there are also samples in the background and a punchiness to it that seems almost punk-influenced. Despite this song’s production being complex and juggling so many different elements at once, they all come together so naturally. I’ve also never liked Future than I liked his appearance in the track. Don’t Don’t Do It begins with a more lightweight, breezy production with its synths, eventually building up into a similar energy with its guitar leads seen on previous tracks. It makes a pretty powerful statement on police brutality, and Kendrick pulls through (as always, lol) with his verse; there’s not much that isn’t to like here.
The production in Rollinem 7’s and Kites is pretty sporadic and punchy; Rollinem 7’s has a sample-heavy soundscape and works in a way you wouldn’t expect; the beat changes around the halfway point adding more synths, drums and different samples, and as if this song wasn’t already packed, we get a solid André 3000 verse at the very end. Kites takes the political themes of the album to the next level; it uses the kite as an idea of overcoming borders, and features Kendrick and M.I.A. Although Kendrick’s verse is a lot stronger than M.I.A.’s, I still think she adds so much to the song’s production in the chorus. And I fucking love M.I.A.’s older stuff, so hearing a song like this reminds me of it in such a good way. The kickdrums and booming synth leads are infectiously energetic, and the song really has everything going for it.
Although I actually really enjoy the sonic landscape of Lightning Fire Magic Prayer as well as its lyrics, the heavily synthetic and almost psychedelic production, autotune vocals and length makes it feel pretty different from a lot of the tracks around it. Still, it’s such a unique song and the more I listen to it, the more it sticks in my brain and I love it; I just feel like its placement in the album doesn’t really make sense. And tracks like Lifting You are pleasant enough (points for making Ed Sheeran barely noticeable) but kind of pale in comparison to the others and are a conceptual detour from the topic at hand. Lyrics here occasionally are a bit surface level and cheesy too, but I think it’s just something you have to know going into the album; it’s definitely a playful, quirky project and it’s not always going to blow you away with profound, extremely well-written lines. Still, there are so many other redeeming qualities that overshadow a few cringy hooks and lines here and there, and I wouldn’t let it ruin your experience with it.
This album is a ride from front to back. It’s definitely not going to leave you bored; whether that means it’s trying to do too much at once or it’s pleasantly experimental is something you decide for yourself. However, to me, this is seriously not like any hip hop project I’ve ever heard before, and I admire the hell out of it for taking so many risks throughout. This is easily one of the most memorable releases of the year, and the more I listen to it the more I love it. Pharrell and the rest of the crew doesn’t leave much to be desired here, and I’m so glad that I get to squeeze in one last project to my year-end list that I enjoyed this much.