Jay-Z had big hits before "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)," his playful 2000 single that pleads with a woman for "that funk, that sweet, that nasty, that gushy stuff."
There was "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," which sampled the musical "Annie" and reached No. 15 on Billboard's Hot 100. And there was the sleek "Can I Get A…," which drove 1998's "Rush Hour" soundtrack to platinum sales.
But it was arguably "I Just Wanna Love U," with its danceable groove and its chorus sung in a goofy yet cool falsetto, that turned the once-gruff Jay-Z into a cuddly mainstream pop star. And behind that transition was Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, known then as the Neptunes, the production duo who over the next decade would go on to help redefine hip-hop's sound — and propel its reach into R&B and pop.
Williams and Hugo, two proud music nerds from Virginia Beach, spent the 2000s working as the Neptunes with virtually anyone they wanted to, from the Clipse to Busta Rhymes to Britney Spears. They also had a freewheeling side project, N.E.R.D before Williams embarked on a successful solo career. (That goofy yet cool falsetto? That was his.)
By 2016, Williams had become so ubiquitous — having won Grammys, scored an Oscar nomination and hit No. 1 on his own with the secular-gospel jam "Happy" — that somebody thought it would be a good idea for him to produce an album by the country group Little Big Town.
But rather than pursue whatever other wacky offers came his way after that, Williams unexpectedly reformed N.E.R.D with Hugo and their childhood friend Shae Haley to make a record that reflects the political and social upheaval of the past 18 months — and shows these adventurers are still devoted to exploring fresh territory.
"No_One Ever Really Dies," released Friday, more than seven years after the trio's previous album, is a furious response to the election of President Trump, to police shootings of unarmed black men, to the malfeasance of "corporations [that] won't pay for effects they cause," as Williams puts it in "Deep Down Body Thurst."
"Assembling a riot!" Williams shouts to open another song, the throbbing "1000," and that's a pretty good way to visualize the willfully jagged aesthetic of this 11-track collection, which features rowdy cameos by an impressive group of rappers and singers including Kendrick Lamar, André 3000, M.I.A. and Rihanna.
In "Don't Don't Do It!" Williams and Lamar question the safety of acceding to a cop's demand to pull over; one of the song's verses is an unsettlingly long recitation of places where people have died due to police violence. (The track's chorus quotes the wife of the late Keith Lamont Scott as heard in a cellphone video that captured Scott's death last year outside a condominium complex in North Carolina.)
"Deep Down Body Thurst" has Williams assuring an unnamed loudmouth, "We're gonna climb your wall," while "ESP" warns against "humongous culture poachers." And then there's "Secret Life of Tigers," in which Williams and Haley address the children of politically conservative parents too busy restricting others' freedoms to properly care for their own families.
Once a groove machine that favored the warmth of live instruments, N.E.R.D has roughed up its sound to match these themes; "No_One Ever Really Dies" is full of heaving beats and harsh digital textures that catch the day's chaotic spirit in the same way that Williams' and Hugo's flashy production work as the Neptunes reflected the prosperity of the post-bling era.
In many cases a song will shift tempo without warning; several, such as "Rollinem 7's" and the nearly eight-minute "Lightning Fire Magic Prayer," feel like two or more tracks crudely stitched together — a thrilling rejection of the flair for pop economy that Williams was flexing just a few years ago in Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," which he co-wrote and produced (and which spent 12 weeks at No. 1).
Yet traces of N.E.R.D's old approach remain: the jittery new wave guitar in "Voilà," for instance, or the jazzy keyboard lick that gives "Don't Don't Do It!" a surprising jolt of whimsy.
Rihanna's appearance in the bumptious "Lemon" — 60 seconds of pure swagger during which she says, "This beat tastes like lunch" — also reminds you of the cachet Williams has established over the years among pop stars like Spears and Justin Timberlake and Gwen Stefani.
When Spears enlisted the Neptunes in 2001 to produce "I'm a Slave 4 U," Williams was seen as someone who could take pop into a brave new future. Now, even (or especially) with his doubts about tomorrow, that vision is still worthy of trust.
The Age of Hip-Hop
From the streets to cultural dominance
The 2018 Grammy nominations are overdue acknowledgment that hip-hop has shaped music and culture worldwide for decades. With the launch of this ongoing series, we track its rise and future.