(The cover art for N.E.R.D.’s new album, self-titled “No_One Ever Really Dies.” Courtesy of iTunes.)
It’s a testament to how much went on in 2017 that you could easily miss N.E.R.D. dropping their first new album in seven years. Not only has N.E.R.D. returned, they’ve returned with a self-titled album (“No_One Ever Really Dies”). “No_One Ever Really Dies” deserves its name. The album feels like N.E.R.D. to the core.
For the uninitiated, N.E.R.D. is an experimental hip-hop group that helped give Pharell Williams his start. N.E.R.D. clips a lot of their bars and creates beats through aggressive repetition. A N.E.R.D. track can seem as much like a chant as a song with repeated bars feeling like the steady pound of a war drum. Rap, hip-hop, and pop will all use very repetitive beats but few bands lean into repetition as hard as N.E.R.D. does.
“No_One Ever Really Dies” masters what makes N.E.R.D. great by leaning in even harder and honing that sharp, quick-cut style. “No_One Ever Really Dies” is pure positive aggression. It uses fast and repetitive beats to make chant-songs tailored to 2017. It’s a political and personal album with clear messages that it tells audiences directly.
Normally, that’s not my jam. Political and self-help art is usually way too obvious or way too banal. N.E.R.D. makes it all work. First, N.E.R.D. has a style that naturally fits music with a message. There’s a hypnotic effect to hearing the same sound hit over and over right on rhythm. That hypnotic effect gels well with spreading a message and makes a lot of lyrics on the album feel like mantras.
Then, N.E.R.D. uses figurative language to give some depth to the message. “Deep Down Body Thurst” is essentially an attack on Trump’s immigration stances but they make it interesting by never making the connection literal. Pharell never says “Trump” or “immigrant” in the song. He’s direct and the message is clear but he always uses figurative language. That figurative language makes the song feel more poetic and adds depth to the message.
Finally, N.E.R.D. doesn’t frontload on the lyrics. A lot of mediocre political art prioritizes the message so much that there’s nothing else there. So many collaboration anti-Trump or anti-Bush albums fall flat because it’s all message and no meat. Why listen to a three-minute long statement when you could get the message in three seconds from the artist’s tweets? N.E.R.D. makes sure there’s as much meat as message. Most tracks have interesting builds and breakdowns, structural shifts, great features from other artists, and interesting beats.
There are so many artists that have tried to do what N.E.R.D. does with this album and failed. It’s not easy to give your audience earnest spiritual and political messages without having them write it off. “No_One Ever Really Dies” feels genuinely uplifting. Most of its messages don’t feel canned or forced.
Beyond the message, “No_One Ever Really Dies” just plain sounds great. N.E.R.D. nailed the mixing, the sound selection, the composition, and the transitions on almost every song. On top of that, every song sounds unique but retains the positive, change the world vibe N.E.R.D. clearly wants the album to have. Even the structure of the album is pretty sharp.
“No_One Ever Really Dies” opens with “Lemon,” a fast and bouncy song (that literally repeats “bouncin’ around”) with Rihanna feature. It’s a classic N.E.R.D. song that parallels their early stuff very well. “Lemon” swiftly shows fans that classic N.E.R.D. is back and up to date with features and sounds relevant to right now. From there N.E.R.D. calms down but never loses focus. For the next 5 tracks, nothing will match the tempo of “Lemon” but they’re just as interesting and just as star-studded.
The album reaches its most relaxed and sublime with “Lightning Fire Magic Prayer.” The lyrical theme and the instrumental mood both peak at “Lightning Fire Magic Prayer” for a song that’s relentlessly optimistic and entrancing. Smooth synths, the sound of running water and the sample of a kid singing congeal into a really pleasant and immersive beat. “Lightning Fire Magic Prayer” lets the listener rest a bit right before the album goes into three pretty intense songs full of voltas and rising action. These songs should close out the album on a strong note but they don’t. “Lifting You” does.
The biggest complaint I have with the whole album is “Lifting You.” I don’t think this track fits on this album. It’s an alright song but it’s plain compared to the other songs. It feels like N.E.R.D. kept it on because it would be radio-friendly. It has such an obvious verse-bridge-chorus structure that its a pleasant pop song on its own but very dull on the album.
Even worse, it closes the entire album out. “Lifting You” doesn’t work as a strong closer. It comes after three tracks with much more going on in them and disrupts the mood those tracks build. It’s far and away the track with the least interesting structure on the entire album. Its message is fine (haters actually lift you up) but not as deep or well-delivered as many other messages on the album. “Lifting You” feels like a b-side or a single. Having it cap off the whole album hurts both the album and the song.
Still, “No_One Ever Really Dies” doesn’t miss a beat. They took their style and made it feel sharp and experimental but affirming and enjoyable in most spots. It might be cheesy or too on-message for some people. It might be too poppy for some avant-garde types and too avant-garde for some pop fans. It’s still great and worth listening to from start to finish, several times over.