While Pharrell Williams can seemingly do little wrong as a solo artist, his band N.E.R.D have often felt like a great concept in search of a consistent sound or ethos and only a handful of good songs. However, in the years since 2010s Nothing, it seems that minds and efforts have been concentrated and what has emerged on No_One Ever Really Dies is a focused, daring and masterful re-emergence packed full of ideas and impactful guest spots. Dealing thoughtfully with notions of a nation that is divided down political and racial lines (Marvin Gayes’ What’s Going On feels like a major influence), but combined with cutting edge hip-hop beats and sounds, it’s a delight from start to finish.
It kicks off with the hyphy rap beat of ‘Lemon’, an infectious track that is so sweaty you can taste the salt on your lips. As Rihanna struts in like a goddess halfway through, the beat changes and it turns into a totally different piece. It is an effective trick that sound engineer Mike Larson performs several times throughout the album, twisting and turning tracks down unexpected paths and diversions. Next up is ‘Deep Down Body Thurst’, where the unwanted subject of Donald Trump is broached. “Man, fuck what you say, we’re gonna climb your wall/Oh you won’t get away, the way you treat Islam”. One year down the line, the protest movement is gathering pace and the musical soundtracks to these times are starting to land. In a manner similar to the aforementioned Gaye, the political messages are buried within an irresistible groove – making it still a record to dance to, just one that puts as much weight behind what engages the brain as it does the feet.
Unlike this week’s other major hip-hop release, the guest slots are expertly chosen and controlled. It’s a brave and confident artist who is happy to surround himself with the likes of Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar and André 3000 (amongst many notable names) – but none of the guests overshadow the main act. When Lamar breezes into the Frank Ocean co-written ‘Don’t Don’t Do It’ (a track about Keith Scott, a black man shot dead in front of his wife by North Carolina police in 2016), it elevates and transforms a classic soul beat into a ska rhythm packed with frustration and simmering anger at a country that routinely treats its civilians differently according to the colour of their skin. The only slight misstep is ‘1000’, a track that has an odd juxtaposition between speaking of how Native Americans were mistreated at the same time as dipping into one of hip-hop’s worst habits – bragging about wearing thousand dollar shoes.
Another way that this stands out from many recent hip-hop releases is in the production and sonic ambition. In the middle tracks, No_One Ever Really Dies transforms into a psychedelic trip, literally leaving our worlds’ problems behind as ‘Esp’ operates on a different plane of existence altogether. The two-parted ‘Lightning Fire Magic Prayer’ is even further out there, and the centre of the album makes for a great slice of experimental hip-hop which rewards multiple listens. When compared to the derivative beats and samples that the likes of Eminem has just released, it is quite simply from a different planet. When André 3000 brings his innate sense of madness to the twitchy ‘Rollinem 7’s’, it is another invigorating left turn on an album where N.E.R.D have let their imagination fly. The use of guests can turn some albums into glorified mixtapes, but this escapes that by everything having a shared DNA of purpose. Only at the end does it feel forced, as Ed Sheeran continues his mission to appear on literally every piece of pop culture by appearing on the closing track. Seriously, can we quit that now please?
No_One Ever Really Dies is deceptive in its execution, with a hugely powerful message encased within killer tunes. It doesn’t just rage at the world, but offers solutions too – an album looking outwards as much as inwards. It offers cutting edge production values, great choice of top notch guests bringing their A-game, producing banger after banger. Who knows when N.E.R.D will be back again, enjoy them while they’re here.