Pharrell Williams’ pet project, N*E*R*D, has always occupied a strange space in the musical cosmos. While Williams focused his efforts on producing hits for others (and later himself), N*E*R*D was a place he could—along with fellow Neptunes collaborator Chad Hugo and producing partner/musician Shay Haley—put some of his more out there ideas, sort of a virtual wall where things could be thrown to see if they stick, to both good and bad effect.
While their debut, 2002’s In Search Of…, was an odd (for the time) rap/rock mashup that worked more than it didn’t, with two singles (Lapdance and Rock Star, respectively) seeing a fair amount of airplay and chart success, subsequent albums were either a tossup between good and bad or just plain bad, depending on your taste. With their fifth release, December’s No_One Ever Really Dies, the trio find themselves mostly ditching the rock aesthetic and calling in favors from a slew of famous friends, again to mostly mixed results.
First things first: Opening track and lead single Lemon, featuring Rihanna, is killer. Catchy as hell, the track will stick in your head for days until you’re forced to perform a musical exorcism to cast it out. The beat, the looped “wait a minute”, Rihanna’s rap—it all works, and shows just what Pharrell and The Neptunes are capable of when they focus and show a little restraint, which makes many of the remaining tracks that much more frustrating.
A lot of No_One Ever Really Dies suffers from what I’ve come to dub “Yes man syndrome”: the notion that, once someone becomes extremely popular, every thought that passes through their head is a great idea. And due to their success, they’re surrounded by “yes men” who don’t have the nerve to tell the star that maybe, just maybe, not every thought and idea one gets needs to be acted upon.
Yes man syndrome actually afflicts a number of people, in all fields. One of the biggest offenders in a non-musical capacity is literary icon Stephen King—even his most die hard fans (among which I loosely count myself) will admit that many of his books are much too long, with a few too many ideas crammed in or a shabby ending cobbled onto an otherwise good yarn. I feel that this album could’ve benefited from someone being present in the studio to say things like “you know, maybe this track doesn’t need ten layers of samples. It’s a little busy.”
When it works, N*E*R*D’s somewhat random transitions from one beat to the next sound inspired, but when it doesn’t it sounds like someone bound and determined to shoehorn different ideas together no matter what, in some sort of audio dumping ground for all things that didn’t fit other projects.
Making matters worse is the fact that with No_One Ever Really Dies, the group has found a more serious, politically active voice that gets muddled in the overly busy mix. Getting Kendrick Lamar to guest on Don’t Don’t Do It!, a rallying cry against police brutality, and spit a verse about the death of Keith Lamont Scott is an inspired idea, but the song’s odd, bouncy riffs and cacophonous production dilute the master rapper’s message.
Subsequently, many of the guest spots on the album feel like squandered opportunities. André 3000 does his best with what he’s got to work with, but Rollinem 7’s is another busy track with too much going on, which detracts from his verse (as an aside, am I the only one who thinks Rollinem 7’s singsongy chorus borrows heavily from—if not rips off completely—the melody to Anyone Else But You by The Moldy Peaches?).
When the featured guests aren’t drowned out by eccentric production, however, they really shine. The two bright spots are the aforementioned Lemon, and Kites, featuring MIA and a second appearance by Lamar, and unlike Don’t Don’t Do It!, here he stands out as someone of his caliber should. The best track without any guest stars is the eight minute epic Lightning Fire Magic Prayer, a mellower track that, along with the other two, shows more focus and restraint, and make for a less chaotic, more pleasant listening experience.
Many have stated that like with previous albums, No_One Ever Really Dies grows on you with repeat listens. I’ve heard the album 6-8 times so far and haven’t found that to be the case. I have nothing against Pharrell in any of his iterations, but he’s far from perfect. Some of the instrumentation on the album sounds like a teenager practicing an instrument they just started learning, and it’s becoming increasingly hard to ignore the fact that Williams’ singing often borders on tuneless. That said, he can still make great music despite those things—he just may need a guiding hand to help remind him that not every idea is a great idea.
Bottom Line: A few gems among a lot of lumps of coal, thanks to a cacophonic mix, busy production, and forcing too many ideas down the pipe that just don’t work.
Listen to the album here: