Close Encounters of the N*E*R*D Kind

Will the Neptunes reinvent rock?

"This fucking SUCKS!" My friends the Fiona-loving b-boys were consternated. I was playing them In Search of... (Virgin), the debut album of Virginia Beach's N*E*R*D (a.k.a. production duo the Neptunes). And as the neo-metal guitars began jutting out of the chorus of the album's opening track and first single, "Lapdance," they began crying foul. A full minute into the song, they forwarded the disc to the next track. Each successive song was allowed a shorter preview than the one before it, until "Stay Together," the last, was switched off in ten seconds. "Garbage!" my friends pronounced. Then they each asked me to burn them a copy.

In Search of... was hardly new to either of my friends, who'd been playing the album since it was issued in Europe last fall. But last year's version wasn't the album they were currently hearing. The Neptunes--Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, joined in N*E*R*D by MC Shay--have been R&B and hip hop's most creative producers this side of Timbaland, crafting hits for everyone from Kelis to Jay-Z to Britney Spears. But the trio was dissatisfied with the album: They canceled its American release, went back into the studio, and rerecorded it from scratch, with Minneapolis funk unit Spymob replacing the original electronics-heavy tracks with flesh-and-blood instruments.

In essence, what N*E*R*D did was to re-shoot a color movie in black and white. The first time you play it, Search version two seems to hew uncomfortably close to its predecessor. The percussive drums don't deviate much from the programmed ones--ditto the new guitars standing in for the old synths. An initial A-B comparison gives the impression that the group had scrapped a finished album in favor of rough demos. (The original version will soon be removed from shelves in Europe, though some import shops still have copies.) "Lapdance," which had originally centered on a barely deviating synth pattern, now resembles a Rage Against the Machine outtake. No wonder my friends hated it--or felt the need to sit down and reevaluate it, anyway.

Rock finds itself: N*E*R*D's 'In Search of...'
Virgin Records
Rock finds itself: N*E*R*D's 'In Search of...'

A month later they're playing it as much as they did the original--all the way through, even. The reconstituted In Search of... does that to you: It tempts you to dismiss it completely, then sneaks up and turns your head around. It may not markedly improve anything specific, but it occupies a comfortable niche of its own. And once you're acclimated to it, the new album sounds every bit as good as--and maybe slightly better than--the first version. Spymob's lean, hard rock-funk grooves add welcome gristle to the proceedings at times, particularly on "Rock Star" and "Tape You." And the Neptunes have eliminated the handful of muffled skits that interrupted the flow of the original album.

But what's most interesting is the way the new arrangements recast the songs themselves. The lyrics depict a character who flits between emotional poles. There's the too-much-too-soon fatalism of being "One hit away from being passed out/ Young, and assed out" ("Bobby James"); and then there's a reverie for a simpler state of mind ("Driving this truck down 95/I pray to God I make it home alive/I don't get pulled over by the man/I just wanna make it home to hold your hand," Williams sings on "Provider"). But where, say, Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction drenched its examination of similar mindsets in thrilling sonics, the Neptunes' dry, flat production undercuts it some: It evokes the rec rooms where rock-star fantasies begin taking shape rather than suggesting the fantasies themselves. (Publicity photos of Williams, Hugo, and Shay in AC/DC T-shirts and playing PlayStations haven't hurt this perception.)

Williams might sing, "Said I was a nerd but I ain't a punk/If you talk shit, then prepare to thump" on the otherwise lovely "Things Are Getting Better," but the chorus ("Could it really be that things are getting better/In my life?...We'll see tonight") is tinged with nagging doubt. And the hammering guitars of "Rock Star" make it easier to hear the song as a slap at Fred Durst. Not that In Search of... does anything like reinvent rock, as some of its more excitable proponents claim. But it does reinvent the Neptunes.

 
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