N*E*R*D appeared, in 2001, as the recording vehicle/side-project of the acclaimed Neptunes production duo of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. Having just started to gain big hits (Britney Spears‘ I’m a Slave 4 U, Nelly‘s Hot In Herre) at around this time, the move into recording (eventually settling down as a three-piece with Shay Haley on percussion and backing vocals) was presumably prompted by the desire to achieve stardom beyond the commercial and critical successes that their production work had already received.
Although seemingly offered as a 10-year retrospective Best Of, this release – oddly – only includes material from the first two albums, having excised any of their post-2004 output (which included two whole albums’ worth of material: 2008′s Seeing Sounds and 2010′s Nothing). What we are left with is less of a genuine overview-of-the-band and more of a let’s-revisit-our-earlier-peaks, begging the question as to whether this is some kind of strange admission / declaration of the value placed by the band on their oeuvre.
So, featuring eight of debut album In Search Of’s 12 or 13 tracks (depending on which version you are looking at), four from the 2004 follow-up Fly Or Die plus a mere couple of rarities and remixes, what are we faced with? Well, a band who – at their best – manage to meld R&B and hip-hop attitudes with some convincingly gritty sounding rock stylings, for one thing. Rock band Spymob, recruited to lend authenticity on the first album, combine their dark riffs with Pharrell’s croon and the smoother synth segments to hugely satisfying effect on Rock Star, Lapdance and Truth Or Dare, particularly on this last, making the dancefloor seem like a threatening, exciting and dangerous place to be. By the time Fly Or Die (the album) came around the band had learned to play their own instruments, but the impact – as heard on Maybe (more like a soft rock ballad, or a piano-inflected Ben Folds Five number), and Fly Or Die (the track) – is less striking.
The other unavoidable issue when writing about N*E*R*D is, of course, their well-known questionable attitude and (sometimes literal) approach towards women. There is a fine line between being lubricious and – well – frankly rapey, and this is a line that is not always successfully negotiated in their lyrics and heavy-breathing delivery. Worst culprit is probably She Wants To Move – the narrator watching a friend’s girlfriend on the dancefloor and deciding “She loves it / I can see it in her eyes” and objecting to the fact that her partner is “hogging her (…) guarding her”. The implication here being that it would be a more reasonable course of action to share her around, presumably. Fly Or Die berates a “dumb-ass girlfriend” who “fucked my friend” as a “ho” – telling the other side of She Wants To Move’s tale with no sense of the inherent contradiction/irony. Baby Doll comes over more like a stalker’s song than that of a smooth ladies’ man: one minute claiming “You are my everything” then swiftly following this with “I just met you”; while What’s Wrong With Me simply sounds creepy.
To their credit, Brain is an interesting internal debate on physical vs mental attraction; and in Provider we see a softer, gentler side to the band – prepared to admit uncertainties and vulnerabilities, and the lengths they are prepared to go to for a loved one.
The political stylings of Lapdance and the effortless cool with which they dissect and simultaneously mock the lifestyle in Rock Star are far preferable, and it is probably no coincidence that these are the two standout tracks. The aggression, energy and sheer excitement of both is not ever – quite – matched by anything else on this album.
Ultimately however, it is hard to give the album a higher rating, since it does not actually live up to its billing. Surely no Best Of collection can really justify itself when it is restricted to a mere 50% of a band’s output? A better recommendation would be to buy the actual albums, starting with the first, and familiarise yourself with the band that way.