Shit, they're coming to turn hip hop gay! Someone call DJ Premier before it's too late
For a second there, I was starting to agree with the Pharrell haters.
Don't get me wrong -- the idea that The Neptunes are wack producers because they're Top 40 hacks or something is ridiculous. There seems to be this phobia in the hip-hop community of anything The Neptunes have produced that isn't a) the Clipse, b) minimalist like their beats for the Clipse, or c) Jay-Z's still great "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me.)" I guess the negative attitude toward their most successful work could be attributed to their flashy style, girls liking most of their best known songs, and the fact that Phalsetto Pharrell likes to sing over their beats. Ewww I know. But I've found the idea that they're flash-in-the-pan pop producers absurd on its face for a while now. If you can pull your ears away from "Grindin'" and Hell Hath No Fury for a second, The Neptunes have plenty of awesome work on their resume, chief among 'em their overlooked N.E.R.D. pop/rock project.
But first, back to why I was starting to agree with the Pharrell phell the phuck off (my bad that was really lame, I'll stop) haters. You see, ever since Pharrell started producing by himself under the Neptunes name two or so years ago (you can tell because he's the only one who gets songwriting credits,) he's been ridiculously lazy for anyone not named Pharrell Williams, the Clipse, Jay-Z, or Lupe Fiasco...'s only truly great song "I Gotcha" (yep get mad.) Previously his phoned in third-rate keyboard wankery was confined to select cuts on Snoop Dogg and Twista albums as well as shitty singles for Ludacris and Gwen Stefani, but things looked particularly bad recently when Skateboard P went one for seven on Madonna's new album and managed to get completely murdered by a bunch of Timbaland/Justin Timberlake/Danjahandz beats that, while good, generally aren't anything the dynamic trio hasn't done better before. Not that I consider myself a Madonna fan or would be interested in an album of hers except in the case where my favorite hip-hop producers are involved, but that was really Pharrell's best opportunity to re-launch himself into the mainstream consciousness, and he didn't seem to give a shit. Then again, maybe he, well, genuinely doesn't give a shit about being a mainstream presence at this point?
The thing about Pharrell and his fellow pop-nerd-in-crime Chad Hugo is that some of their best work has flown under the radar. While I know the type of rap fans who see guys like DJ Premier, Pete Rock and RZA as the sole definition of "real hip hop" (not dissing any of 'em by the way, just that some people seem to have a tendency to write off talented producers who don't fall under their true-school template) seem to consider The Neptunes's work with the Clipse their best, probably cuz especially on Hell Hath their beats are more spare and boom bap-oriented, I personally think N.E.R.D. represents The Neptunes at their most creative. It's a project that naturally automatically alienates hardcore both hip-hop heads and "damn, they think they're better than hip hop!" anti-"elitist" types, but the fact of the matter is that using live instrumentation allows The Neptunes are able to expand on their sound in a way they can't with outside rappers. You combine an insanely intricately layered take on the Neptunes's various sounds with Pharrell's weird-ass sense of humor and you've got a winning formula. N.E.R.D. does a lot of songs that're shallow/sex-obsessed on the surface but take on the subjects in an entertaining, self-aware way that elevates them beyond, say, a disgusting "love rap" from Rick Rawls.
Which brings me to Seeing Sounds, N.E.R.D.'s latest flop/masterpiece. Based on the lead single and longest song title ever "Everyone Nose (All the Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom,)" which took a bit to grow on me and still isn't one of the album's best songs, I was skeptical that the album'd be any good. I mean, I'd take an experimental mess over the lame shit Pharrell's done for outside artists in the last two years, but it'd still be a mess. Thankfully though, Seeing Sounds is a good kind of mess -- it manages to be N.E.R.D.'s most stylistically varied album yet without letting its ambitions exceed its quality. It jumps from the percussion clusterfuck of "Everyone Nose" to straight-up pop on "Windows," Neptunes sheen-meets-unhinged Timbaland drums on "Spaz," jazz...ishness on "Yeah You," psychadelia on "Love Bomb..." and it's all good. Well, with a few exceptions, but I'm willing to let a few half-baked ideas slide when the rest of the album's as great as it is.
I'd imagine the principal criticism against N.E.R.D. is that Pharrell can't sing, which I gotta call bullshit on. Sure he's not exactly original, but he's got an expressive, smooth voice that works with the music here, and to me any "omigod my ears are bleeding!" response is a sign of antiAndresque purist overreaction. (Although Pharrell is definitely a better singer than a rapper, unlike Andre 3000.) Even when the guy strains his voice a little too much for his own good, as on his "youuuuu!" bit at the end of "Yeah You's" hook, you get the sense that he's aware of his limits and just kinda fucking around. The half-serious, self-aware messing around vibe makes even more sense when you consider that despite being the smoothest, most textured Pharrell beat in recent memory, the lyrics on the song are really about some crazy stalker chick. Don't worry though, I'm pretty sure any ladies will be too into the groove to tell or care.
This type of half-serious, half-fucking around atmosphere is there throughout the album, whether we're talking non-rappin'-ass rapping N.E.R.D. sidekick Shay Haley sounding hilarious delivering some of the dumbest "pickup" lines of the year on "Time for Some Action" (sample: "You know only I can smash you right. Well alright!,") Pharrell psychoanalyzing cocaine-snorting girls on "Everyone Nose," or the fact that "Love Bomb" is a let's-fuck-to-save-the-world song. Still, N.E.R.D. wouldn't be nearly as compelling if their music didn't sound as great as it does, and along with Chad Hugo's great work on new wave/alt-rock singer Kenna's Make Sure They See My Face from last year this album suggests that Pharrell and Hugo may actually be better off separate than together right now. Only three songs here are written by both Neptunes, including "Anti Matter," a grating buzzed-out synth mess that's the worst beat of theirs I've heard in a while. While they more than make up for it with "Love Bomb," the trippiest song on the album, the Pharrell-written highlights here prove that the reason he's put out a bunch of trash beats lately isn't becuase he isn't insanely talented, but because he's been a lazy motherfucker. The ridiculously frenetic "Spaz" is what should have been the album's lead single, and "You Know What" rolls along effortlessly with a sound that brings to mind a Neptune'd version of Maroon 5's "Makes Me Wonder" (don't front.) I'm not exaggerating or being contrarian when I say that his best beats here give Timbaland and Kanye's recent work a run for its money, even though Graduation is a better album through and through. Hearing the differences between Pharrell's work here and Hugo's work on the Kenna album also clarifies The Neptunes's creative specialties for production nerds like me -- Pharrell's beats are more pop/funk-based, while Hugo's the weird space-age synth nerd. Well, you also get more minimalist percussion-heavy Pharrell stuff sometimes as with his work for the Clipse, but I prefer when there's a little more going on with his beats.
While it's not surprising considering "Everyone Nose" has no crossover appeal, it's kinda disappointing that this album bombed when I dunno if I see Pharrell hitting another creative peak like this before the year's over. My prediction: Common's gonna eventually put out Invincible Summer/Autumn/Winter, it's gonna have a bunch of wack-ass Pharrell-in-his-sleep beats, people're gonna rightfully shit on it (though some may try to spare infallible saint Common from criticism...I mean it's not like he chooses his beats or anything,) and the poor multimillionaire'll remain a misunderstood genius. But maybe he wants it to be that way. Who knows though, maybe something cool'll come out of that CRS Kanye/Pharrell/Lupista collaborative group. In the meantime, while I know a lot of bloggers are caught up in the Great Hipster (?) Rap Rise of '08, Lil Wayne and Pharrell are the dudes holding it down for weirdcoolness right now. Believe it.