Tuesday, July 8, 2008

N.E.R.D. Comes Back With Energetic Seeing Sounds

After the group took a hiatus in 2005 to focus on other projects, Neptunes production duo Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams and close friend Shay Hayley reunite for their third album, Seeing Sounds with a purpose. The Neptunes have produced many big-name artists both as a duo and individually, with Pharrell staying more in the forefront with various record guest spots and even producing a solo record independent of the Neptunes and N.E.R.D. Chad Hugo has preferred to stay behind the scenes while Shay Hayley avoids the spotlight. N.E.R.D. has always been known for a unique sound different from their other acts, often making it difficult to name specific genres. While their backbone is in hip-hop, their mix of alternative rock, funk, and other styles creates a fusion of sound that refuses to squeeze into that mandated mainstream sound. Pharrell has stated, “We didn't care about genres; we're not doing this for the money,” making an album for their fans and their experimental movement.

From left to right: Shay Hayley, Chad Hugo, and Pharrell Williams.

Their previous albums, In Search Of… and Fly or Die definitely threw fans for a loop, as it varied greatly from the well-known production of the Neptunes and Pharrell’s solo hip-hop music. In Search Of… originally released in Europe in 2001 and featured a digital sound more akin to the Neptunes. To fit into a more specific category for the US release as well as to differentiate the group from their Neptunes work, they re-recorded the album with live instruments for a more rock sound. They recruited Spymob to help in the recording since they didn’t have enough to time to learn certain instruments adequately. 2004’s Fly or Die showed the group playing the actual instruments and in live performances. More of a pure rock album, it shows off N.E.R.D.’s unique flavor and personality. Seeing Sounds follows this trend to make this nice fusion of rock and hip-hop. N.E.R.D. (standing for No-one Ever Really Dies) embodies that pure energy they bring to their music and live performances. This album just takes that philosophy to the next level, which Pharrell explains both their approach and album cover.

"If you really analyze that," Pharrell added, "the most inspiration is probably deep inside a synesthesiac. So for us, 'seeing sounds' is what we relate to the most. We figured we'd make an album out of it. Energy and emotion was the criteria [while recording], but we made the music anticipating the [live] show. That was the most important thing... [The song] 'Spaz' is [an] old school, hip-hop feeling with some drum and bass. It becomes a big, tall monster. It's almost like this big gorilla looking down at you. If he smacks you, he kills you. His fingers are the size of your body. That's kinda what we're doing. We're facing this big monster of, of what we know is out there, of what we see, that big monster of energy."
Seeing Sounds really does feel like it abandons the conformities and considerations to ‘sell’ and get mainstream airplay, with an album that just feels good. Things start off with Pharrell reminiscing his childhood in “Time for Some Action”, setting the tone and atmosphere for what’s to come. The first half of the album features a more hip-hop inspired sound, with singles “Everyone Nose (All the Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom)" and “Spaz” exhibiting the more beat-centric sound. However, the second half of the album is where the group really shines. Showing off more experimental sounds and genre-bending tracks, it definitely feels stronger. “Happy” features a traditional rock groove with a nice hip-hop vibe that only they could make-work. “Love Bomb” is a roller coaster of sound, with Pharrell’s smooth vocals riding across the highs and lows. “Sooner or Later” follows a similar trend, yet is unique on its own. Starting off with piano and simple hip-hop beat, the song soars in the chorus with its big sounds, mellow feel, and amazing guitar solo. Pharrell gets the majority of the writing credits this time around, but everyone contributes. You can feel each song’s multiple layers, summing together to form that fusion of energy.

N.E.R.D. defines pure energy. It’s an artistic album, one that fits whatever vibe you’re feeling. It captures the spirit of their first album, In Search Of..., of rebellion and feeling. However, the lack of true mainstream singles and other contributing factors will most likely limit the appeal of the record. Not every song is a hit, as some feel like they're trying too hard. Seeing Sounds is not perfect and it’s not for everybody, but it’s something different.

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