Ok, so some disclosure here first off: I was always a fan of N.E.R.D. back in the day, but honestly, never a die-hard. I loved In Search Of… and Fly Or Die but it feels like a long, long time ago that I listened to much beyond the hits. And I think it’s fair to say it was a different time. Back in 2001 and 2004 (when those came out) they seemed pretty much like something totally new: they were hip-hop, but they had guitars, they were cool, good looking, ridiculously talented, and of course, alongside this, they were The Neptunes. For all the brash, boisterous records they released as N.E.R.D., they were also one of the production outfits of the decade. Their Clones album had everyone on it, all produced with their slick, gossamer-like studio skills, and brought some of the best hip-hop of those years. Kelis, Snoop, N.O.R.E., Nelly, Busta, Ludacris… they sprinkled their gold dust on everyone. And so, well, I gravitated away from N.E.R.D. to the Neptunes.
So, fast-forward to 2017, and it’s been 7 years since their last long-player and the world’s changed. Have N.E.R.D.? I’ve certainly changed, and this was an album of the month that I’ve come to pretty much totally cold. Given Pharell’s polymathic skills, its’ a question that will it work or will it prove an ill-fated comeback. This is enough to give me the cold sweats, especially where it’s a genre I’m less than enamoured with than the rest of you gents. So, is No One Ever Really Dies (yes, that’s what the initials mean) really a step forward? Looking at the (inevitable) guests it certainly feels very 2017: Kendrick, Gucci Mane, Rhianna, Future, and Ed Sheeran. Yes. Him. Then there’s Andre 3000, an interesting nod to the past.
I’m three listens in, and I have to say, my first reaction is that I FEEL OLD. I know I am old, but really, for a man that’s pretty mired in the old school sound of samples, turntablism, and classic hip-hop, this feels so alien. It’s not like I don’t like new stuff – Kendrick is brilliant, Frank Ocean likewise, and there’s new records that still shake me (A Tribe Called Quest’s new record is one of my favourite albums of the last ten years, already) – but the new production style that sits somewhere less grinding than trap, but still with percussive, nervous tics and few melodies that open Lemon is way out of my comfort zone. In fact, the first listen almost makes me feel like I’ve tried to watch the news in a foreign language. Or use Snapchat.
But…. but…. it’s not all dad jokes and cliches. As I revisit, things start to gel. Lemon is a ballsy opening track, with Rhianna’s words and voice suiting its bombast well. Andre 3000’s golden skills on Rollinem 7s makes you wish he’d actually make a new album of his own. The brash melodies of Deep Down Body Thurst are bright and bouncy. It starts to emerge out of the mist, and I feel less like the new dad I am, trying to listen to Radio 1. Kendrick makes reading the phone book interesting, so he’s always listenable on Kites, and on Don’t Don’t Do It (though do they have to really overdo it on everything, rather than just make a perfectly-pitched record?). The overriding feeling so far is that there’s an album waiting to get out, if I just give it more time. It’s a much more coherent beast than some of their patchwork earlier albums, and much better for it. But it’s also an obvious truth that the modern style of hip-hop they’re swiping just isn’t my bag, so either I’ll end up liking it in spite of that, or going off it because of it. Pharrell didn’t need to make this album, and he certainly didn’t need the money, so while only time will tell, it’s good to have them back.