N.E.R.D.’s comeback is a welcome one. On their first album in more than seven years, the Virginian hip-hop crew return with an expansive and expensive venture, encompassing the major genre trends of the past fifteen years.
And on ‘No One Ever Really Dies’, they’ve brought some friends. Featured artists on the 11-track project include Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, André 3000, MIA and (unfortunately) a dub-reggae Ed Sheeran.
Pharrell Williams, N.E.R.D.’s frontman and driving force, is internationally recognised as a master producer and collaborator. Both of these are proven on ‘No One Ever Really Dies’ – from the album’s first minutes, lead single ‘Lemon’ features a bouncing, earworm instrumental and an incredible Rihanna guest verse. Later, Gucci Mane’s trademark drawl strangely complements the funky guitar chops of ‘Voilà’, and Kendrick delivers breakneck flows on ‘Don’t Don’t Do It’ and ‘Kites’.
However, the album also exposes Pharrell’s weaknesses in crafting a solid track without collaborators. The songs without features, which mostly land in the album’s less notable second half, often feel undercooked and lacking in ideas. The worst offender, ‘Lightning Fire Magic Prayer’, is drifts aimlessly and emotionlessly for almost eight minutes.
Unsurprisingly, N.E.R.D also uses the album as a political platform, to differing degrees of success. ‘Don’t Don’t Do It’ is a slow-building but urgent call to focus attention back on police violence. Less convincing is ‘Deep Down Body Thurst’, where Pharrell seems to throw a variety of insults at President Trump over a rigid instrumental. The sociopolitical lamentations across the record are too big to miss, but not significant or original enough to make ‘No One Ever Really Dies’ a convincing political album.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a band like N.E.R.D these days. In fact, the opposite is probably true: if they still have the potential to push out energetic singles like ‘Lemon’, there is a huge demand for high-quality pop-rap like this. Coupled with the trio’s undeniable production skills, there is plenty of reason to hope that the follow-up to ‘No One Ever Really Dies’ doesn’t take another seven years.
‘No One Ever Really Dies’ is out now on Columbia.
author: Ruben Seaton