By Jemel Wilson
After an epic album listening concert at ComplexCon, the trio of Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo, and Shay Haley—aka N*E*R*D—released their highly anticipated fifth studio album No One Ever Really Dies—the group’s philosophy from the beginning. In true NERD fashion, Chad supplies the sci-fi synths accompanied by Pharrell’s velvet vocals to motivate young people to channel their inner strength to rage against the powers that be. They enlisted a galaxy of A-listers to aid them, including Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, Gucci Mane, Wale, Future, Ed Sheeran, and a rare appearance from André 3000.
In the opening track, the hit single “Lemon”, Pharrell says, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” Then “Hey!”. The beat slaps you awake and forces you to move. Spastic describes the vibe of this song, but that’s the signature style of the Neptunes. When they “Get mad ethnic!” they switch gears and unleash a lyrical tongue lashing from Rihanna to give it attitude—saving the song from coming off pop-corny … a balance the group perfected for two decades.
The next song titled “Deep Down Body Thurst” brings to mind the dance-worthy garage band sound created in 2000. Pharrell’s voice swoops in on top of Chad’s cool Korg chords to speak directly to corporate America—including the Commander-in-Chief himself—with lines like “You’re not the Milky Way or the center star. It doesn’t matter what you win if inside you’re lost.” They refer to Donald Trump with the line “Mr. Wizard of Oz, it must be going to your head. Cuz your intentions are dead … Dead Wrong.” The song reminds listeners that people like him suffer from a deep-down body thirst that can’t be quenched with money and that they can’t hide from the negative effects they cause. Karma catches everyone.
“Voila” features Gucci Mane casting a raspy spell on the chorus of space pop. “They think I know magic, They say I’m a magician. Voila!” This song—a dance theme—motivates the listener from the inside out. “Abracadabra, Get out the bed. I’m the mirror. I’m the voice inside your head.” It sends a message to the kids with no idea how to make “things” happen. Hustle and believe in yourself! “Voila”. Wale delivers as the beat switches into a slowed-down version of a stroll down Bourbon Street with calypso drums. This otherwise tasty gumbo needed a dash of Cajun spice.
“1000”, the group’s second single, pays tribute to the computerized new-wave sound of the 80s with an infectious, super-charged bounce. The song encourages people to unite for change. “In the mirror there’s a hero. 1-0-0-0.” Then the synths drop, the crackly drums hit and Future comes in “1000!” The moment takes you back to the Neptune’s hit “Grindin’” and reminds you how much of the Neptune’s charm derives from a lack of refinement. Future shows you how much superficial stuff in his life can be quantified by 1000 as only Future and his buddy auto tune, which fits on this digital dance-off.
“Don’t Don’t Do It!” starts with a smooth lounge groove, but there’s nothing laid back about the message. The song rhythmically rehashes an unwarranted and tragic D.B.C. (Death By Cop). It speaks to the hard facts that any interaction with a shaky officer can be your last. Kendrick sprints double time on the end of the track to bring the point home. “Pac-Man wanna prosecute you. Raise your hand up, and they’ll shoot you.” He makes another appearance alongside M.I.A. on the tribal trap track “Kites” where Kendrick tells you his beliefs. “The day I have a J.R., I’ll tell him to work for God and quit his day job.” Kendrick and Pharrell show great chemistry throughout the project and understand the power of their words, especially when they exchange bars, “Every field in Mississippi, every street in California. Know the devil is a liar, it’s the time to be anointed.” M.I.A., the Sri Lankan native adds international flavor and perspective, “They don’t want no goddamn foreigners! Say hey, do you wanna marry us?”
On “ESP” Pharrell sprinkles the Jedi mind trick over an infectious dance groove, “Other side to your brain, but you ain’t tryna to use it, You got an extra eye, but you ain’t tryna to use it.” Then the stylistic switch flips into a Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” nod.
“Lightning Fire Magic Prayer” offers a mellow swing and sounds like it was recorded at NASA. The sounds used could only be from the eclectic sonic palate of Neptunes. The song calls for everyone to reach out beyond themselves for the better good—a consistent and important theme in this divisive climate.
After the breather, they hit the ground high speed with heavy 808s and feature from Mr. André Benjamin on Rollinem 7’s who rounds up the high-speed race with a verse that reminds you why he should not be forgotten. “I panoramic, look around, I be on edge. And eggshells, yeah I’m an omelette, a quiche. I catch hell, they throwing fireballs to me.” Ed Sheeran helps spread an uplifting message on Lifting You, a Nerd-terpretation of the classic roots reggae dub-plates.
The album showcases what makes the Neptunes and N*E*R*D so important for music culture. They ignore the status quo and take chances, assembling a project that speaks to millennials about issues like racial and gender inequality, police brutality, unfair judicial systems, bullying, and immigration—without preaching—and probing your ear drums with sounds that make you do unfathomable things like dance and think about the future of this country at the same time. The album empowers and inspires the revolutionaries of tomorrow while reminding them that No One Ever Really Dies … so live with a purpose.