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(neptunes) N.e.r.d - In Search Of...


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In Search of...

[Virgin; 2002]

Hip-hop relies heavily on the foundation created by the dichotomy of repetition and novelty. This takes many forms, from the struggle of producers wishing to maintain a semblance of recognition for utilizing old-school techniques, to the desire of new MCs to push the boundaries of lyrical delivery. Recently, this shifting between repetition and novelty has reached a manic pace, to the point where it seems essential fare for a producer to shout over a track or re-use bass sounds and drum patterns to emphasize their signature. In the advertising world, it's called "branding."

The Neptunes are the reigning kings of beat-branding. Throughout their best-known tracks-- from "Superthug" to "Southern Hospitality"-- some elements have remained more or less constant: the bass sound, a gritty, ultimately recyclable sample, and the off-time kick/snare combination that seemed revitalize hip-hop for a minute. But that minute has lasted two years, and the same sounds now cross the board from Britney Spears to Limp Bizkit. Shit is getting ugly, and N.E.R.D. is the truest testament to this fact. Quoth the Neptunes: "In Search Of... seems like a bland title, but for us, it's In search of love. In search of happiness. In search of smiling. In search of that bitch with the big ass. In search of the answer to why my brother smokes crack. It's all of that; it's about being open."

In Search Of... joins Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo (the Neptunes) with hometown friend Shay. (That hometown, incidentally, is the same Virginia area that brought up Timbaland, Missy Elliott, and Teddy Riley.) This album conceivably brings the group back to their "roots," which, in a letter written by Pharrell on the group's website, heavily emphasizes the AC/DC side of things.

The album has had a relatively tumultuous history-- especially over the last few months-- with a domestic release date pushed back by the Neptunes' decision to re-record the album with the help of some live instrumentation. Over a year ago, the original version of the album was released and garnered exactly no glowing reviews (with the exception of a positive write-up in Rolling Stone). Whether or not this was the incentive for the group to re-record is unclear. The result, however, is an album's worth of hot-to-death Neptunes hooks and bass sounds tainted with the despicable addition of rap-metal drumming and distorted guitar posturing.

To backtrack a bit, when the "original" album came out about a year ago, the first single was the "BET Uncut Video"-worthy "Lapdance," which promised to fulfill Pharrell's promised prophecies of hip-hop as revolution via chorus lines like, "The politicians are lookin' like to strippers to me." See, Pharrell has been talking a lot of shit since the Neptunes began to get some serious props, stressing that doing a beat for Jay-Z was a way of "getting their message out" to the masses.

But somewhere between "I Jus Wanna Luv U" and "Pass the Courvoisier," signals got crossed. Pharrell, Chad and Shay took the drum tracks off most of the album, and added a drummer who could easily have cut his teeth in a Slipknot cover band. While Rap-Metal 101 drums bang away in the background, the basslines are replaced by chugging guitar riffs reminiscent of your high school hardcore band. What remains, though, is the exceptional quality of Pharrell's voice, which, unlike the bass sound, doesn't lose its intensity due to repeated radio exposure. The lyrics here are mostly decent, too, with the exception of "Brain," which, before it was re-recorded sounded clever, and now sounds like a frat house anthem. "Provider" hints at the fact that were Pharrell and Chad born twelve years ago, they'd be bumping this album along with Kid Rock's Cocky.

One of the greatest benefits of being multi-million dollar producers is having access to recording equipment that will make your sounds even more super-flawless. This, coupled with the Neptunes' five years of hitmaking experience, make for a "well-produced" album, which generally doesn't mean shit to me. Chalk it up to an oversight on the part of N.E.R.D. And their acronym speaks the truth, and No one Ever Really Dies, maybe we'll get our hands on a third, less compromised version of the album, where the drummer has been fired and the guitar is being used to prop up the reconstituted drum machines.

-Michael Bernstein, March 26th, 2002 Pitchforkmedia

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