While Simon Cowell takes most of the credit, and blame, for dictating ultra-mainstream pop tastes over the last decade, Pharrell Williams has proved the more respectable face of pop. Alongside his Neptunes partner Chad Hugo, he’s sat in the production chair for the likes of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, through to Kelis, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Kanye West. If Mark Ronson has the Midas touch, Williams is some sort of platinum-breathing dragon.
With such high demand for their talents it’s impressive that, in eight years, Williams, Hugo and band mate Shay Haley have squeezed out four albums, meaning they get to play at being pop stars for a change. N*E*R*D could so easily have been a vanity project, but it all started off well, with 2002’s In Search Of and its follow up Fly Or Die packing a rocky, crunching thump. But 2008’s Seeing Sounds was something of a letdown; they missed the spot. Perhaps seizing on this as a chance for a bit of reinvention, Nothing sees Williams and company ripping up the N*E*R*D rulebook and starting again from scratch.
The harder edge of N*E*R*D has been worn down, replaced with sunny funk and psychedelic soul. Perfect and Victory channel the recent summery, upbeat offerings from Cee Lo, while single Hypnotize U loops Williams’s Prince-ish falsetto vocal around dreamy blips courtesy of Daft Punk.
There are moments of near-madness as well. The pop-waltz, Help Me, serves as a vessel for the group’s apparently anti-war sentiment (“I won’t kill you but I’ll watch you die…Die, bitch, die,”) and Life As A Fish is about, well… fish.
But just when the eyes start to roll, along comes a track to remind the world how and why N*E*R*D make a convincing case for their role as the new kings of US pop. Their tried and tested formula of sleazy, bass-heavy hip hop which Williams and Hugo usually slap all over the tracks in their charge has produced two club bangers. Hot-N-Fun, which features Nelly Furtado, and Party People, with vocals from T.I., are Nothing’s highlights. Daft Punk have more to answer for than just Hypnotize U; both tracks have a noticeable injection of electronica rarely heard across N*E*R*D’s back catalogue, and the simple, repeated choruses are classic Daft Punk.
Yet ultimately there’s nothing to match Rock Star or She Wants To Move, and Nothing sounds like a weak imitation of the very acts its creators carved and honed. Not a bad effort, but we’ve come to expect more.