N.E.R.D. once represented greatness. Example? On their ever fitting sophomore effort Fly or Die, Pharell Williams and Chad Hugo decided to pick up the instruments themselves, creating a record that sounded enjoyably amateurish in production and slightly tongue-in-cheek in approach. It was an ideal follow-up to a perfectly polished debut : weird, messy, catchy as fuck, and unconventional to the standards of a play-it-safe sequel (garage-rock mixed with electronic hip-hop elements, and all the more better for it).
Three years later, the band released their third major album on Star Trak / Interscope records, Seeing Sounds. Pharrell’s inspiration came from his on-going fascination with synesthesia as well as its effects on the human mind. Intriguing concept aside, the songwriting marked a significant step backwards — musically. They seemed a bit lost, as if the success of their previous efforts pressured the band to take a big step forward. Tracks like “Spaz” and “You Know What”, however, suggested that somewhere, somehow, N.E.R.D. still had it in them. We could only hope for the best.
So here we are with Nothing, an astonishingly disappointing record that not only solidifies the painful rut they’re in, but also questions whether the band has anything left offer. And you can’t help but wonder what the hell happened. Where’s the creative energy that made N.E.R.D. one of the most promising bands in 2002? Where’s the risk taking that crossed so many boundaries of the genre? What happened to the catchiness of their music? Unlike the mediocre Seeing Sounds, Nothing (as its title unintentionally suggests) contains zero inspiration: this is all filler no killer, as if Pharrell and Chad struggled to find the magic that made them hip-hop virtuosos in the first place. Every track feels tired and all too familiar: “Victory” sounds like a mere copy-cat of “Sooner or Later” or “Maybe”, and “I’ve Seen the Light” – arguably N.E.R.D.’s worst song ever – sounds like a cheesy attempt at a Kid Cudi song. Either they’re trying too hard or the band is at a dead end, period.
Though the production sounds crisp and professional, the shallow lyrics grow tiresome, the dance tracks lack melodic depth, and the overall instrumentation lacks imagination. I’m curious to see whether Pharrell and Chad will continue their N.E.R.D. project in the near future. My advice to them: rediscover the rock and roll that made you guys so fascinating in the first place.