N.E.R.D: No_One Ever Really Dies - Pharrell’s band return with a stormer
No One Ever Really Dies
N.E.R.D. / Columba
Hip-Hop & Rap
“The truth will set you free. But first, it’ll piss you off.”
The opening words to N.E.R.D’s first album in seven years, No_One Ever Really Dies, are spoken by Pharrell Williams, just as the satisfyingly jarring Lemon, which features a magnificent Rihanna rap, begins.
In 2017, N.E.R.D go all in with political putdowns, and their new album features acts that would have looked up to this trio when they were younger (except for Outkast’s André 3000, who simply evades time and sprinkles magic whenever he goes), acting as a rolodex of who’s who in music today.
Racism, police brutality, activism and indifference are the themes that link this entire album. Even when beats have a sunny disposition, they go much deeper than a good song. Don’t Don’t Do It! features a guest verse from Kendrick Lamar and additional vocals from Frank Ocean, and it begs of black men to stay in the car if a policeman pulls them over. “They tell you pull over, tell you get out your car/Don’t do it, don’t don’t do it,” goes Williams, using the last words that Keith Scott heard from his wife Rakeyia before he was shot four times by a plainclothes police officer in North Carolina.
What starts with a gentle, yacht-rock sound turns into a light ska beat, with Williams and Lamar detailing the injustice that Scott was served, simply for being a black man waiting to pick up his son from the school bus. N.E.R.D cleverly lace hard-hitting truths in lightweight melodies, and it feels as if those who don’t want to know the truth will find themselves singing along without realising what they’re saying.
Williams has played a huge role in shaping the sound of chart music for the last 20 years, either with N.E.R.D, consisting of Williams, Chad Hugo and Shay Healy, or as The Neptunes, Williams and Hugo’s production team. The Neptunes made career-defining songs for Jay-Z, Kelis, Mystikal, ODB, Britney Spears, N*Sync, Ludacris, Usher and No Doubt.
Everyone wanted their sound, but when N.E.R.D make music, no one sounds like them. Fusing jazz, hip-hop, R&B, rock and funk, they made aggressive songs that the mainstream acts they produced for could never release. Singles such as Rock Star and Lapdance, from their 2001 debut album In Search Of . . ., had mass appeal and got video play on MTV, MTV Base, MTV2 and Kerrang. Their music reached out to the mainstream, hip-hop, rock and emo kids at a time when these tribes were pitted against each other.
While that momentum slowed down by the time Nothing was released in 2010, N.E.R.D’s mark on music is indellible, and when Williams’s solo career took centrestage, even at his worst (the nauseatingly cheery Happy from the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack) he was still a cut above the rest.
The return of N.E.R.D feels monumental. Written mostly by Williams, No_One Ever Really Dies isn’t as obviously aggressive as In Search Of . . ., but the juxtaposition of sounds shows no shortage of creativity. Voilà, featuring Gucci Mane and Wale, is an uptempo, calypso track that skews into what sounds like a robotic steel drum running out of battery. ESP is a bouncing track that feels like it’s trotting in reverse, with Pharrell asking us to use our energy instead of letting social injustices slide. “You got such good taste, but you ain’t tryna use it/ Other side to your brain, but you ain’t tryna to use it,” he says teasingly, calling people on his side to rise up.
On both Lemon and on the spaced-out and spiritual Lightning Fire Magic Prayer, all seven minutes and 44 seconds of it, you can hear the line “we mad ethnic now” repeated. It’s a sample from a video the New Jersey rapper Retch posted online where he’s giving shout-outs to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as he smokes a blunt on a street filled with elderly white people.
Using a sample that lightly makes fun of the system helps push people forward, lifting voices that we traditionally don’t see in the media. It’s a knowing nod for those who are already fully aware of institutional racism, and the many references are a starting point for those that don’t. No_One Ever Really Dies pushes the marginalised forward and lifts them.
“Your mom’s against the immigration/Your dad’s against your right to choose,” utters Hugo on Secret Life of Tigers, playing it out bluntly that we all have to fight up to speak out against something and we can only live off excuses for so long.
Even the album cover is revealing. It shows a white person with their tongue out – Miley Cyrus style – and what appears to be actual tinfoil, intended to look like grills, on their teeth unravelling. We all have fronts but in times of need, like right now, pretending can only get us so far. Pleading ignorance is no longer acceptable when we can’t escape the truth. No_One Ever Really Dies is the wake-up call for those who have been hitting snooze for way too long.