Review: Why N.E.R.D.’s return felt like a cynical bait-and-switch
First, the good news: N.E.R.D. reunited to make an album, and the result is ferocious.
Unfortunately, the only reason I know this is because I was hoodwinked, along with thousands of others, into schlepping to Long Beach on Saturday night to hear it.
As much an idea (or a series of them) as a band, N.E.R.D. pairs the superstar record producers Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, known as the Neptunes, with Shae Haley, an old pal from the men’s hometown of Virginia Beach.
In 2001 the trio released “In Search Of…,” an adventurous debut that took off from the brittle but funky sound the Neptunes had popularized in singles such as Noreaga’s “Superthug” and “I’m a Slave 4 U” by Britney Spears.
The album wasn’t a hit, exactly, but it found a devoted cult, and over the next decade N.E.R.D. continued to put out records — some rock, some soul, some willfully indefinable — even as Williams established himself as a successful solo act.
Yet the group largely receded from view following 2010’s “Nothing” — until last week, that is, when N.E.R.D. came roaring back with “Lemon,” a delightfully rowdy new single featuring a masterful verse from Rihanna.
On Saturday the outfit was scheduled to play its first concert in years as part of ComplexCon, a two-day event at the Long Beach Convention Center organized by the culture website Complex. (Other acts on the bill included M.I.A., Young Thug and Gucci Mane.)
Only a concert isn’t what Williams and his mates had in mind.
Instead, the ticketed show turned out to be a glorified listening session for a new N.E.R.D. album, evidently titled “No_One Ever Really Dies” — which is what the group’s acronym stands for — and due out soon, according to a representative.
Sitting atop an illuminated minivan on a scissor lift, Williams, Hugo and Haley nodded their heads in time to the music as a sound system blasted the 11-track set, which features appearances by an impressive roster of guest artists including Kendrick Lamar, Future and Outkast’s André 3000.
To be fair, this thing was pretty elaborate as listening sessions go — certainly more involved than those I’ve attended in which free booze is passed around a crowded studio.
Here, a large stage was set up at one end of the convention center’s arena, with vehicles and streetlights arrayed to suggest a kind of outdoor urban space. Dozens of dancers performed intricate choreography to each song; at a couple of points, Williams and Haley even hopped down from their perch to rap along with the recorded music.
Viewed in a charitable light (as indeed many at ComplexCon seemed inclined to do), the presentation invested a routine record-biz obligation with atypical pizzazz — not unlike how Williams used a gig writing tunes for a kiddie movie to create the world-conquering “Happy.”
And let me be clear about N.E.R.D.’s new music: Based on the single listen I got Saturday, “No_One Ever Really Dies” might be one of the year’s most exciting records, with words about revolution and technology and police violence set against dense, jagged arrangements that catch some of the chaos of life in America in 2017.
In songs like “1000” and “Voilà,” N.E.R.D. is leaving behind the warm, live-instrument feel of its early work in favor of a much harsher digital attack; the music frequently shifts tempo without warning, as though an engineer had crudely jammed two songs together.
“Rollinem 7’s,” the collaboration with André 3000, rides a furious groove that echoes Outkast’s “B.O.B.,” while “Lifting You” somehow works up a trippy psychedelic lather with help from Ed Sheeran, of all people.
Before the sound system played “Don’t Don’t Do It,” which features an intense verse from Lamar, Williams explained that the song’s title quotes the wife of the late Keith Lamont Scott as heard in a widely seen cellphone video that captures Scott’s shooting death by police last year in North Carolina.
It’s a long way from “Lapdance,” the sleazy rave-up that opened “In Search Of…”
Still, for all the growth and engagement that N.E.R.D. was showing with its album, it was impossible not to feel fleeced by Saturday’s event, which exploited fans’ expectations of a live performance to launch a buzzy new product.
Then again, maybe I was the only one feeling exploited.
As best I could tell, folks paid money to get into ComplexCon in order to pay more money to buy limited-edition shoes and hoodies from powerful corporations like Nike and Adidas. The thrill, I gather, is in getting a crack at merchandise that other people can only dream about.
So perhaps Williams knew he was in the right place to pull off this cynical stunt.
“The album’s not coming out tomorrow,” he told the crowd, before adding that, yeah, eventually it would be available for anyone to hear.
But not yet.
“This is your moment,” he continued to a round of excited cheers. “You got it before everybody else did.”
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