Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week's album is N.E.R.D's comeback album, NO_ONE EVER REALLY DIES.
Lately, I’ve felt tasked by any meager attempt to describe the doomful climate of mainstream music without a sliver of redundancy each time. Brevity reigns a frightening supreme, superstars rise and crash at will, and even the beloved bourgeoisie come down to revel in the madness. In the lattermost sense, mainstream pop music is terrified of itself: the choice to ignore or engage 0ur global panic - either intention bearing our world’s weight - eerily treads the line between crafty subversion of the pop ecosystem, and dangerous cooptation of the brink of a revolution. When N.E.R.D returns, the former feels possible even if the endgame is a messy product of lofty ambitions. But their symbolism reverberates through today: they were a raging Black voice for Black folks who weren’t at the forefront of representation, certainly not in the 2000s. Pharrell, Chad, and Shay blended everything for scrap metal, and melanated strokes of genius rose from the ether of rap, rock, soul, electro, anything.
Considering Pharrell’s not-so-distant history of awkward racial posturing - most notably, the New Black theory and his oft-criticized comments on Mike Brown’s “bullyish” behavior prior to his death - this album’s timing and energy, thankfully, feels like a genuine progression for someone who’s learning in public. NO_ONE EVER REALLY DIES should mark a triumphant return to form, N.E.R.D wedging their relentless experimental spirit into the pop-protest zeitgeist with a few radio-ready smashes to savor. It truly tries hard to be the album we need; so hard, it’s awkward to watch it fall apart from afar. The sentiments are on people power overdrive, fueled by thunderous 808s, overtly-charged lyrics, and a “mad ethnic” RetcH soundbite for size. When N.E.R.D tries their hand at the mixtape for the end of the world, there’s a dirty density in how massive everything feels, the sonics as high as the stakes. And herein lies the caveat that should come as no surprise: for all the powerful symbolism in what the band’s done, the potential in their albums have always exceeded their execution.
That’s not to dispose of the sum of its parts: “Lemon” is a fantastic introduction into the world, where Rihanna rides the frantic bass with an undeniable swagger certified to set any dancefloor on fire. “The truth’ll set you free, but first, it’ll piss you off” serves as a gravely-appropriate foreword for the rest of the album, chock full of heavyweight friends functioning in odd environments. We’re treated to two Kendrick verses: his first on “Don’t Don’t Do It” is what you expect, K.Dot’s stock verbal acrobatics on an indictment of police brutality, but he sounds far more at home on the zany world without borders on “Kites,” bookended by a stellar M.I.A. vocal performance. “Rollinem 7’s” chugs along like a steamroller, and Mr. Benjamin resurfaces to bob and weave in southern drawl without a broken sweat. When left to their own devices, Pharrell and Co. teeter between piercingly hopeful and unceremoniously corny, sometimes within mere seconds. Hearing Pharrell trade bars with Kendrick on “Kites” is one of the album’s most delectable moments of flair and focus, and “Deep Down Body Thurst” brings an infectious glee to privatized damnation with the promise of a new tomorrow, even if the Wizard of Oz imagery barely skates by cringe territory.
When this album falters, it’s painfully noticeable. While “1000” got a worse rep than it bargained for, it offers one of Pharrell’s better vocal performances while offering a terribly-muddy breakdown for an off-key Future appearance that doesn’t sync up thematically even if a stark contrast was intended. “Don’t Don’t Do It” approaches similar territory when Pharrell’s voice dampens the contrast of the Keith Scott-inspired content, sounding far too tongue-in-cheek for the occasion. The Gucci verse on “Voila” sounds like a stitched-together relic, and Wale adds little to the sauce we’re lost in. Records like “ESP” and “Lightning Fire Magic Prayer” are sandwiched together, holding 13 combined minutes of a congested mid-album stretch that throws imagery all over the wall in a fashion more headass than head-on. By the time we reach a giddy Ed Sheeran appearance on the closer “Lifting You,” the listener’s lifted from a subversive sugar-high and left the way every crash will leave them: hungrier than before, wondering what the ride was for.
It’s easy for a N.E.R.D purist to cast NO_ONE EVER REALLY DIES away for abandoning the drum kit and not replicating the fury of a Fly or Die, but this was a space for the collective to supercharge their efforts towards nobility in hopes of channeling a greater human energy. It’s engineered to rattle your sub, in transit to a future headed to nowhere, and will provide more than a handful of moments to revel in recklessness. But once we tear the foil from the white girl’s teeth, we’re exposed to the rest of the truth that may piss us off: an album drowning in its big ideas. Ergo, dare we concede, another half-there effort arriving right on schedule.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.