N.E.R.D.'s adolescent Fly or Die really is adolescent.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
March 30 2004 3:04 PM

Their So-Called Life

The new N.E.R.D. album indulges the doldrums of late adolescence.

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The first thing one must recognize about the Neptunes is that there are two of them. The Virginia Beach producers have had a remarkable run atop the pop charts, thanks largely to their simple, irrepressibly catchy beats and a far-reaching clientele (Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, No Doubt). But the casual fan sees only Pharrell Williams, the photo-ready yang to his partner Chad Hugo's reserved yin. Where Williams, 30, is ubiquitous, chatty, and charismatic, Hugo, 29, sinks into the background, occasionally smiling. Williams handles the hooks, receives the shout-outs, and appears in all the videos; Hugo stays at home with the wife and kids. They may have collaborated on some of the most brazen pop moments of the past decade (Nelly's "Hot in Herre," Kelis' "Milkshake,"the Clipse's "Grindin,' " but on the surface, the Neptunes make an odd couple.

The purpose here isn't to recover Hugo from the anonymity he seems to cherish; it is to point out that the Neptunes operate within a structure of weirdly personal, philosophical, and musical dyads. Their trademark sound—Williams' streaking falsetto atop a deep-pocket boom—is rich with the drama of highs colliding against lows. There are the rowdy, absurdly oversized Neptunes who traffic in sex and cartoons (the guys kids love), and there are the signifyin', self-conscious Neptunes whose hybrid-minded compositions and outsider sentiments suggest they're smarter than they are famous (the guys critics love). Nowhere are these divisions more evident than on their enigmatic, rock-influenced vanity albums as N.E.R.D., or No One Ever Really Dies. (Shae Haley is the band's third member, but his only responsibility seems to be brusquely repeating Williams' vocals every now and then.) The second N.E.R.D. album, Fly or Die, was released March 23. Having written a half-good song for the Counting Crows, the all-powerful Neptunes have proved they can do anything. On Fly or Die, this means they reserve the right to vacation in the mind and imagination of a mopey, outcast teenager. Since the Neptunes are neither teens nor outcasts, one expects their latest project to be a shrewd, savage take on today's overemotional rockers. But the album's token teen character is portrayed in hackneyed, closed-off terms—there is no equilibrium or adolescent self-conflict, only emotions and sounds cribbed from MTV. (One can imagine him loving the Neptunes' hooky immediacy but regarding N.E.R.D as circular and weird.)

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The first N.E.R.D. album, In Search Of … (2002), was a sleeper hit when it was released. It re-imagined the compact spank of their beats for other artists through the idiom of rock. Many of the tracks moved with hip-hop's swaggering gait, but Williams' slippery, absurdist lyrics drew connections to quirky groups like Steely Dan or Stereolab. Some of his lines sounded like in-jokes and others like philosophy; few seemed literal. The album opened with the snaking raunch-fest of "Lapdance," wherein Williams accused the government of "sounding like strippers." (The fact that nobody knew whether this was social critique or fun-sounding babble added to the mystique.) There were songs celebrating girls gone wild ("Tape You") alongside bizarre, touching ballads of true love ("Run to the Sun"). Cocky excess ("Rock Star") mingled with bluesy caution ("Bobby James").

There was a cute ditty about oral sex ("Brain") alongside a busted, folksy ballad about the responsibilities of manhood (" Provider"). Taken as a whole, In Search Of … suggested there was a careful, self-aware ego to the hit-making hydraulics of their id. Rather than re-positing the instant gratification of pop, the Neptunes had retreated into a world of obscure plots—they had become a thinking person's pop duo.

As producers, the Neptunes can do no wrong. The Neptunes have said that producing an album is like providing "the crayons for other people's coloring books." Given that they are quickly becoming more famous than their clients—and given the creative freedom this presumably affords them—their modest self-characterization is cryptic. The music industry's mandate is to minimize risk, and for roughly four years, hiring the Neptunes has been as close to a sure bet as the machine allows. Slap a rapper (in most cases, almost anyone) over a plinky, spring-wound Neptunes beat, and he suddenly sounds like a million bucks: The Clipse owe their careers to the Neptunes' charity; inconsistent rappers Busta Rhymes, Mystikal, and Noreaga have each benefited from Neptune booster shots; and Britney Spears, who seems allergic to subtlety, will never sound as teasing as she does cooing about servitude over the robotic sleaze of "I'm a Slave 4 U."

When producers turn into performers, it is usually because there are things they simply can't do with other people's music. The first N.E.R.D. album hinted at the knowing smile that flickered beneath the Neptunes' consensus-building pop sheen. Their track record had earned them the right to do anything, even noodle around with their weirder, less populist ideas on a vanity disc. Yet the first thing that strikes you about Fly or Die is that it sounds like a retreat into all the boring parts of MTV they have nothing to do with. Consider the title cut, which opens with rinky-dink keyboards and Williams gleefully clarifying, "This is for the kids; this is only for the kids!" From there, a wash of choppy guitars signifies by-the-numbers teen angst, and Williams pouts unconvincingly: "Mommy, Daddy, I know you love me/ Bad grades, Playstation, frustration, you take it from me." The song's central conflict—"Fly or die? Sink or swim?"—isn't exactly a Kierkegaardian either/or, but it's probably a fair representation of a grumpy teen's internal monologue.

Unfortunately, Fly or Die rarely ranges beyond the standard ways of describing, or soundtracking, teenage experience. It lacks the wry, clever wit that separates the day job from the side project. You suspect that something lurks beneath the surface since hidden meanings might redeem the album's one-dimensional plainness: Williams' lyrics lack both surface humor and threat of depth, and the riffs—supplied by novice guitarist Hugo—are beefy but staid. The id-happy sex songs ("Backseat Love," " She Wants To Move") are prankish and cartoonlike in a just-pubescent way. One can imagine "Wonderful Place," with its moving wallpaper and sparring fruit, as a real-life conversation between two first-time stoners. On "Jump," the Neptunes, perhaps in hopes of more MTV airtime, enlist hyperfriendly, prefab angst rockers Benji and Joel Madden of Good Charlotte for guest malaise. The track's pogo bounce suits their childishly rebellious lyrics, but as with much here, the guitar and drums sound too prim to properly scare. "Breakout" careens between a light, pastoral motif and an ineffectual, tantrumlike threat to "Push people!" The haughty stomp of "Thrasher" borrows from Queens of the Stone Age's "No One Knows" but never really thrashes.

As producers, the Neptunes have yet to wear out their welcome: Despite seeming ubiquitous, they still play hard to get. But Fly or Die feels punchless and non-threatening. Are the album's stiff emotional range and rehashed riffs a straightforward ploy to penetrate the ranks of teeny-bopper divorce-rockers, or is it parody? Answers to this question (if they indeed exist) are lost in the album's gimmicky melodrama and mechanical, funkless grooves. In the context of pop, Fly or Die commits the worst offense: Its stern role-plays verge on boring, and you don't feel like sticking around for the punch line. Sex? Yes! Parents? No! Rebellion? Yeah! They don't regain their playful coyness until a gorgeous, Beatles-esque tune near the album's end that posits love as an egg and life as a joke. Fittingly, the song's title is "Maybe."

Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College and is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.

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