Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, or The Neptunes as they are known to their famous friends, are surely the most famous producers in the world at the moment. Whether it’s lending Britney Spears some much needed edge, resurrecting Kelis‘ career, or firing Justin Timberlake to global superstardom quicker than you can say, “Those songs were originally meant for Michael Jackson,” everything they touch seems to turn to bling.
But what of their own musical ambitions? It seems that there is often a need for successful producers to step out from behind the geeky studio desk, don the rock star shades and convince themselves that they too have mojo. Usually, this is ill-advised. Butch Vig managed it for a short time with Garbage, but the less said about efforts like Bob Rock’s Rockhead the better.
Williams’ and Hugo’s alter-ego band, No-one Ever Really Dies (N*E*R*D), completed by rapper Shae, were in danger of going the same way, after the relatively world-unchanging impact of their debut In Search Of… Things will be different this time, partly because The Neptunes are a heck of a lot more famous now. However, it won’t be because this album is better than the first.
No, for all its diversity, clever production trickery (but of course) and guest appearances (Good Charlotte‘s Madden twins on Jump, Lenny Kravitz and The Roots‘ ?uestlove Thompson on Maybe), Fly Or Die only soars intermittently.
The high points come mainly in the first half of the album. Opener Don’t Worry About It is a funkadelic, head-strutting quasi-rock workout that will have you singing, “She’s bad, bad, bad ass,” for hours afterwards. Take my advice and don’t do it in front of the missus, though.
Fly Or Die is a soulful, rhythmic number that breaks into an energetic chorus underpinned by some distorted guitars; Backseat Love is a very cool funk rock piece that recalls Living Colour Love Rears Its Ugly Head; and current Top 5 single She Wants To Move will have you shaking your booty as if you were Beyoncé with ants in your pants.
The problems start with Wonderful Place, which, despite a likeable, full-on cabaret chorus, falls on the wrong side of the cheese-o-meter scale with its whistling and dull verses. It also leads into that most irritating of pseudo-clever album “things to do” – the secret track. Except in this case, there isn’t just one unmarked, hidden song, but three. Perhaps it would be more palatable if they were any good, but the strings and harps in the one following Wonderful Place are yawn-inducing, while the faux musical drama of the second “gem” is at odds with the bouncy, summery indie-rock nature of Drill Sergeant that precedes it.
The lyrics aren’t much cop, either. These boys have only got one thing on their mind, and it ain’t other boys, as only a cursory listen to Don’t Worry About It (“she’s bad ass”), Backseat Love (the title says it all), She Wants To Move (“she’s sexy”) and The Way She Dances (“unzip your skirt”) will tell you. And as for the profundity of, “Sorry we took so long, you probably thought we’d forgot your song,” in Chariot Of Fire, well let’s just say that they won’t be winning any poetry contests yet. Not unless they’re competing against five year olds, anyway.
Still, despite these criticisms, it’s hard not to like Fly Or Die at least a little bit. Few artists mix hip hop, soul, nu-jazz, pop and rock, let alone produce it themselves in such a polished package as this. And when they let the vocals move down in the mix a bit and bring the guitars and drums to the fore – more please, next time – N*E*R*D can sound positively exciting.
At the end of it all, Williams, Hugo and Shae have created an album that tries to add some spice and cred to the mainstream polish they churn out for their clients, whilst maintaining a level of safety that won’t alienate the fans of said artists. That’s a lofty goal, by anyone’s standards – they shouldn’t give up their day jobs just yet.