Despite the music world seemingly being divided into people the Neptunes will work with and people the Neptunes haven’t yet worked with, the producers supreme have managed to do the impossible and retain an almost unrivalled level of creative credibility, all the while developing a sound that, regardless of whether it’s backing up pop-muppets or hardcore rappers, sounds distinctly their own.
So in between polishing up that Britney record, giving Kelis her “Milkshake” and playing no small part in turning Justin into THE pop-star of our times, Pharrell, Chad and Shay have found the odd moment or two to record their second album as N.E.R.D, Fly or Die. The new album starts rooted in dirty 70s funk with “Don’t Worry About It,” and over the next eleven tracks proceeds through musical genres as if ticking them off a list. We get complex, jazzy musical progressions, honky-tonk piano, funk, falsetto, rawk guitars, sleazy soul, synths, Santana riffs, shuddering beats, straight up hip-hop, tribal drums and the sumblimely paranoia-hazed, psychedelic sunshine pop of “Drill Sergeant,” the oddest, and best, track on the album.
From that description, it sounds like a mess. It should be the almighty folly that sees N.E.R.D, and consequently the Neptunes, toppled from their perch as the uber-kings of cool. But you know what? It doesn’t. Of course there are a few missteps; “Jump” is a magnificent example of how not to do guest appearances, and what exactly N.E.R.D hoped to get from the two members of Good Charlotte is a mystery. Perhaps it was just another on the “to do” list of genres for this record (half-assed, skater-boy punk-lite?). “Maybe” is a rather dull reworking of Lenny Kravitz’s “It Ain’t Over,” complete with guitar cameo from Lenny himself, and “Backseat Love” is lascivious enough to make you feel uncomfortable. However, despite these moments where the album teeters worryingly close to plummeting to a horrible death, it never quite falls.
But Fly or Die leaves you asking, “Is this the album N.E.R.D really wanted to make, or is it the work of a bunch of musicians who just wanted to see how far they could go while still being taken seriously?” Pushing the boundaries of music is all well and good, but done purely as an intellectual exercise, attempting to make an album so self-consciously different seems slightly cynical, as if this is purely a vanity project; N.E.R.D saying “look at us, aren’t we so clever and, well, so damn talented? We can do a song in any style and make it cool.” Thing is, they are mostly as good as they think, which makes it an undeniably good album. But there remains a nagging feeling that maybe, just maybe somewhere in a studio in Virginia someone is laughing at our expense.