N.E.R.D

No One Ever Really Dies

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Subversive and socially conscious aspects have been threaded throughout N.E.R.D's jocular jams and ornate fantasias since 2001. "Politicians is soundin' like strippers to me," flippant as it was, stood out in their debut single "Lapdance." Later works involved anti-war, anti-bullying, and pro-conservation messages obscured by indiscriminate musical whims. NO ONE EVER REALLY DIES, the first N.E.R.D album in seven years -- and first material since duly nutty contributions to The SpongeBob Movie -- turns it up, fueled almost exclusively by societal turbulence as experienced and observed by Pharrell Williams. As a consequence, it's the closest N.E.R.D has verged on being a solo vehicle for Williams. He produced the whole thing and wrote almost every line not delivered by the featured artists, a crew of nine starring Rihanna, André 3000, and Kendrick Lamar. (Chad Hugo plays keyboards on only four songs and picks up one credit for additional production, while Shay Haley is typically secondary on vocals.) Williams and company change the style with almost as much frequency as Son of Bazerk, marking abrupt turns mid-song, spitting out brawling pop-punk and caustic fusions of new wave and synth funk, throwing in jittery footwork, comparatively straightforward hip-hop, and a little reggae. Those old Neptunes steel drums make a return, too. The energy level is high and restless, in a near-permanent state of agitation, heightened with machine beats that judder and bounce, synthesizers that plink and probe, and Williams' animated protestations. The rollicking temperament gives all the material, and that includes "Don't Don't Do It!," regarding the fatal police shooting of Keith Scott, a replayable quality. Tied together with recurring declarations of "mad ethnic right now," sampled from Retch's 2016 viral clip, the album is all raucous resistance to issues ranging from anti-immigration to police brutality to transgender rights. When Williams barks "You fuckin' with survivors!" like an activist Rockwell, he perfectly summarizes the indignant optimism that dominates the best N.E.R.D album since the original version of In Search Of....

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