Unlike In Search Of..., originally made primarily on N.E.R.D.'s various machines and then reconfigured with assistance from funk-rock band Spymob, Fly or Die is kept almost entirely in-house. The ridiculous cover, along with first single "She Wants to Move" -- and its accompanying video, including a literal translation of the line "Her ass is a spaceship I want to ride" -- thankfully provide little indication of the album's true makeup. And the moments where the Star Trak hand sign gets flipped to a set of devil horns are mercifully fleeting, though "Backseat Love" is undoubtedly problematic -- it plays Dumberer to "She Wants to Move"'s Dumber. ("Lapdance" was Dumb.) The rest of the album isn't just noteworthy for subject matter that skips through child-parent relationship sketches, ecological reveries, and protest songs; the bright, bold Neptunes glaze that normally coats their chart-aimed singles of all stripes is applied to material that will leave many people baffled. The album sees N.E.R.D. rummaging through parts of their record collection that don't normally bubble to the surface in their production work. Most disarming of all is "Wonderful Place," a seven-minute trip divided into halves. The first shows a chipper Pharrell striding through a sunny meadow, marveling at the natural wonders of the planet in spite of its troubles; with a horn-punched chorus ("My soul's in my smile/Don't frown, just get up get up") and other subtle splashes of Baroque pop elements, it owes equally to Burt Bacharach and the Left Banke. This dissolves into a fading whistle, only to give rise to a dramatic, synthetically orchestral and acoustic-folk tale about a near-fatal family fishing trip. Any parent of the past, present, or near future will be stirred, especially once Pharrell goes falsetto to emphasize the relief of the nearly drowned baby being rescued by his mother. Instead of pausing for effect, the album goosesteps into "Drill Sergeant," yet another two-parter. Half power pop bounce and half tumbling, doomsday pummel, the song pulls no punches with antiwar sentiments that target the government and media, and when a teeth-clenched Pharrell talks about his fear of blowing up, you know he's not talking about fame. Despite the heavy subject matter in a third of the songs, the album nonetheless carries a lighthearted, fun-loving lilt. At face value, Fly or Die is a rather straightforward rock record. To N.E.R.D.'s credit, no one else could've made this particular rock record. Ideas come by the bushel, hooks arrive when least expected, embedded jokes get discovered like Easter eggs. Nobody can tie all of these things together and make them glow quite like this. Apart from a ploy to get some rotation at your local mall's Hot Topic (Good Charlotte's Madden brothers make an appearance), they didn't appear to make this record for anyone but themselves. So while Fly or Die is one of the most creative and ambitious moments of the Neptunes' career, it might also be their least understood.
AllMusic Review by Andy Kellman