After one listen to N.E.R.D.'s debut, I immediately thought of something Mos Def told Spin awhile back, when the magazine gave him a chance to right the rap-rock wrongs of the past few years. Forget the exact quote, but he said something along the lines of, "Fred Durst so wants to count in the ghetto, and he just can't." The same could be said for all the white kids who grew up with Beastie Boys posters on their walls and N.W.A. in their tape decks; save for a very few, the lyrics spit out by white rhymers sound as awkward as a 13-year-old kid reading from the Torah at his bar mitzvah. Adding bad metal riffs to the mix doesn't help to polish the turd.
Fact is, white boys like Durst want to count in the ghetto and can't, but even 10-year-old white kids could probably sing Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass" if you asked them to. We went to a restaurant around Christmas, and while we were in the bar having a smoke, a kid--maybe 11, 12 tops--strolled by, doing his best to appear as though he just stepped out of a Jay-Z video, his wrist-thick platinum neck chain overpowering the horrendous Cosby sweater his mom made him wear. No doubt this kid was rocking a hip-hop tape in his Walkman on the ride over, and more than likely, it was probably something produced by The Neptunes, the team of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, who (when recording with their hometown pal Shay) call themselves N.E.R.D.
As The Neptunes, the production duo is responsible for hits by the likes of Jay-Z ("I Just Wanna Love U"), Ol' Dirty Bastard ("Got Ya' Money") and Ludacris ("Southern Hospitality"), among many others. Critics have wondered if The Neptunes are biting fellow Virginia Beach producer Timbaland's skittering drum patterns or if they are both merely eating off the same plate. One thing: It doesn't really matter. Especially not after hearing In Search of N.E.R.D. Because, really, one doesn't have much to do with the other; The Neptunes are Bruce Wayne and N.E.R.D. is Batman.
Of course, it could have been different had the group stuck to the initial concept of the disc. Never heard that original version, since the group pulled it off Virgin's release schedule at the last minute, deciding to replace the music they made out of dots and loops with live instruments. So I don't know how this stacks up with that, save for the first single, "Lap Dance," released months ago. (And all you ladies spinning around the pole to this, keep in mind it's all about "politicians sounding like strippers" and how it's "this society that makes a nigga want to kill." Not exactly the Crüe's "Girls, Girls, Girls.")
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The updated "Lap Dance," with its sinister swatches of strings and sturdy, sexy swagger, is pure hip-hop-and-roll, and no rock-rap marriage has been as successful as this one, finding both sides of the hyphen at the peak of their game, like Magic and Bird in the 1984 NBA Finals. (As far as merging black and white culture, the only thing we've heard lately that even touches "Lap Dance" is a bootleg circulating on the Internet that plays karaoke with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," using the vocals from Destiny's Child's "Bootylicious.")
"Lap Dance" is only the first of a dozen schizophrenic songs that flirt with a handful of styles and sounds, but never go home with any of them. On In Search of, N.E.R.D cross the same borders OutKast did on 2000's Stankonia (hip-hop, rock, soul, funk and pretty much everything else you'd find in a record store), yet they don't use the same checkpoints. Stankonia, after all, was a hip-hop album first and foremost. N.E.R.D. don't bring white music into a black world, nor do they necessarily put hip-hop into a rock club. They make music without worrying about what portion of the Venn diagram it will fit into.
When Williams sings something like, "Girl unlatch your bra/But first unlatch your jaw/It's cool to call me a dog/But your head's underneath my paw" (as he does on "Brain"), sure, it might be off any hip-hop record of the last few years. In N.E.R.D.'s hands, however, it's more like Devo with an uncontrollable urge. "Things are Getting Better" adds a sneer and a slap to Steely Dan's studied studio slickness; it's doubtful Becker and Fagen would write, let along sing, lyrics like "Kiss on me baby/Lick on me baby/But you can't own me baby/'Cause I'm the shit," but, hey, who knows? In Search of is all over the place, and given the title, it should be. They look the part, too: Williams, the group's front man, is a hip-hop hillbilly in his classic-rock tees and gimme caps but sounds like Curtis Mayfield's little brother. The Mayfield nod is especially true on "Bobby James," when Williams dons his best falsetto: "Hey there mister give me some cash/I'm high as hell and ready to blast"; it's Superfly, in more ways than one.
"Rock Star"--with its opening taunt, "Fucking posers!"--may be the closest thing to a mission statement here. It may be the most mellow hardcore punk song ever, keeping its finger on the trigger but rarely pulling it. "You think that you don't have to ever quit/You think that you can get away with it," Williams sings, seething behind clenched teeth, as the guitar line attempts to kick the door in behind him. Then the hook: "You can't be me/I'm a rock star/I'm rhyming on top of cop car/I'm a rebel and my .44 pops far." It's not clear if Williams is boasting or poking holes in bloated egos, and I suppose it works both ways. Whatever the case, Williams and N.E.R.D. prove that mingling rap with rock wasn't a bad idea; it just wasn't done right. And now someone has.