N.E.R.D. :: Fly or Die
Label: Virgin Records
Author: Dan Mennella
Let nothing be said of N.E.R.D., known as The Neptunes in their incarnation as popular producers extraordinaire, without first acknowledging their originality. While tastes and opinions vary from fan to fan, there's few people on the third rock from the sun who can't readily recognize the trademark synth beats that Jay-Z once fondly referred to as the "bling like The Neptunes sound." However, what Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo have accomplished as producers in the last half decade is nothing short of defining the sound of mainstream and club-friendly hip hop. And although their unapologetic stance on working frequently with pop acts like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake has led many to question their integrity, their talent is undeniable.
But, N.E.R.D. is, in many ways, a wholly different entity than The Neptunes—and that's hardly due to the inclusion of Shay, hanger-on and childhood friend of Pharrell and Chad. So much of what we're familiar with from The Neptunes is still intact for N.E.R.D.: Pharrell's pseudo-soulful, falsetto vocals; juvenile lyrics that border on downright dopey; vibrant keyboard effects and sounds; and an overall glossy feel that's usually pervasive in most of their hits as producers. But N.E.R.D. is decidedly edgier than their beat-making selves, with distortion-aided guitar strokes, harder-hitting drums and enough nuances to keep the respective sounds of their duel identities distinguishable.
And, with Fly Or Die, N.E.R.D. borrows elements from all their various favorite styles and projects them into a style all their own. While the creative subtleties are small enough to overlook Pharrell's exchange of his shirtless, self-hugging image from videos like "Frontin'" for the mesh-hat wearing, tube-sock skater dude from "Rock Star," it is these discrepancies that translate particularly well in terms of Fly Or Die's likeability. The chants of "She's bad, bad, bad ass!" over the pulsating beat of album opener "Don't Worry About It" won't win poetry awards, it's still amazingly infectious, and the multi-layered vocal harmonies Pharrell lays down at the back end of the track bring it full circle.
The title track follows up nicely, even amidst a slew of Pharrell's pubescent laments like "Mommy, Daddy, I know you love me / bad grades, playstation, restrictions, you take it from me." The triumphant chord progression on the chorus compliments nicely what eventually becomes just one of many I-can't-stop-singing-that-damn-line phrases as Pharrell wonders "Will it be fly or die, sink or swim / which one shall I choose?"
And, if there's one thing we've learned about Pharrell and Chad over the years, it's that little is off limits, which explains the appearance of pop-punk rockers, brothers Benji and Joel Madden of Good Charlotte on "Jump." While many might search for reasons or excuses as to why N.E.R.D. chose this rather ubiquitous duo, chalk it up to their nonchalance—N.E.R.D. doesn't care what anyone thinks. A lot of artists claim to make records for themselves and their own enjoyment, but N.E.R.D. is one of the few who can rightfully make that claim. All pretensions aside though, the brothers Madden come off nicely and even take a stab at some melodic rapping with a little assonance thrown in.
"Breakout" and "Backseat Love" both delve into some straight up hard-hitting funk, the latter being on par with The Neptunes-produced "I Got A Right To," from Common's Electric Circus, but in this case, the trick works rather well. The first single off Fly Or Die, "She Wants to Move," will rock clubs with it's thunderous bass, rapid string strumming and join-in drum claps. And again, though the line "Her ass is a spaceship I want to ride" isn't one of the better examples of lyricism we've seen in a while, even the ice-grillers will sing along with it. And the radio-ready sex track "The Way She Dances" would probably make a worthy second single, in a similar vain of the first single. ?uestlove of The Roots and Lenny Kravitz kick in their efforts on "Maybe" to render the track one of the neatest and most digestible on the album, despite Pharrell's intermittent struggles with his vocal pitch. And N.E.R.D. provide us with a bonus cut at the end of "Chariot of Fire," perhaps providing us with one of the more captivating moments on all of Fly Or Die—Brit-pop chorus and all.
Though missteps are few and far between, one of the more glaring is Pharrell's ill-fated attempt at bringing his vocals to the forefront of a sparse track as he does on "Wonderful Place," but even that might be saved by the introduction of a very nice horns and string stabs strategically placed through the track. "Chariot of Fire," though a pretty good track in its own right, may be an inappropriate title in that in does no justice to the negro spiritual. And, though you can never really tell with N.E.R.D., let's hope that "Drill Sergeant" is some sort of inside joke rather than an actual attempt social commentary as that is in no way their strong suit.
Whether this release will Fly Or Die in terms of sales is nearly irrelevant at this point—Pharrell and Chad are independently wealthy from their works as producers alone. But with it, N.E.R.D. present themselves as litmus for open-mindedness of listeners everywhere (or lack thereof). It may be too catchy for the pretentious backpackers and too edgy for TRL heads, but it truly warrants at least one honest listen from anyone who even remotely enjoys music, because there is no doubt that Fly Or Die is something they've never heard before. Even those who qualify this one as a "guilty pleasure" are half right—just leave off the guilty part.
Music Vibes: 9.5 of 10
Lyric Vibes: 6.5 of 10
TOTAL Vibes: 8 of 10
Originally posted: March 30, 2004