By S. Jester, Staff Writer
You’ve probably heard of Pharrell Williams before, and you might have recognized his voice in a song called “Lemon” that has received frequent radio airplay in the past month or two. What you may not know much about is the history of the group behind this new track, and their brand new album. N.E.R.D., an acronym for No-one Ever Really Dies, released their self-titled album in December following a seven year hiatus. Fronted by Williams, the group also includes musicians Chad Hugo and Shay Haley. Through their genre-blending albums “In Search Of…,” “Fly or Die,” “Seeing Sounds,” and “Nothing,” the group has cemented itself as a pioneer of the rap-rock genre.
Enter “No-one Ever Really Dies,” N.E.R.D.’s newest project. With guest verses from the likes of Gucci Mane, Future, Kendrick Lamar, Andre 3000, and most surprisingly, Ed Sheeran, it is perhaps the group’s most prolific album to date. N.E.R.D. began teasing the album a few weeks before its release when they dropped “Lemon,” an upbeat and expertly produced track featuring Rihanna. The track’s release was accompanied by a captivating music video in which Rihanna is shown giving dancer Mette Towley a buzz-cut before she performs an enthralling dance routine created by none other than Beyonce’s choreographer, JaQuel Knight.
Aside from “Lemon,” the album’s standout track is “Don’t Don’t Do It,” which features a verse from Kendrick Lamar. Although political undertones remain decidedly weaker throughout the rest of the project, “Don’t Don’t Do It” is a strong, politically charged song. It centers around Keith Lamont Scott, a black man who was fatally shot by a police officer in North Carolina in 2016. Co-written and co-produced by Frank Ocean, the song describes how Scott was waiting in his car with his wife to pick his child up from the school bus after school, when he was approached by police officers. As they told him to put his hands up, his wife pleaded, “Don’t don’t do it,” hence the track’s titular inspiration. Kendrick’s powerful verse highlights the racist and devastating nature of police brutality, noting that America’s inherent racism has not changed over time in lines like, “N*****, same rules, same chalk / Different decade, same law.”
Contrasting sharply with “Don’t Don’t Do It,” songs like “Deep Down Body Thurst” and “Kites” take much weaker stabs at showcasing political stances. Making references in the former to plans to “climb [Trump’s] wall” and the “way [Trump] treats Islam,” N.E.R.D. attempts to formulate a political statement without actually saying much at all, the result being that “Deep Down Body Thurst” falls rather short of the eloquent “Don’t Don’t Do It” in its ability to convey a political message lyrically. Dexterous mixing and a second feature from Kendrick nearly save “Kites,” and yet, the verse succeeding Kendrick’s is delivered by M.I.A., a pairing that proves ultimately unsuccessful. While Kendrick once again presents a meaningful commentary on revolution and rebellion in the current state of our nation, M.I.A. closes out the song by “letting off kites over barriers,” a tenuous, insufficient response which is all too similar to our country’s automated disaster response of “thoughts and prayers.” “Rollinem 7’s,” another offering from the album featuring André 3000 of Outkast, follows a similar pattern, speaking quite briefly of coming together and making a group of voices heard. However, this message and André 3000’s surprisingly concise verse become muddled in the repetitive, looping samples which compose the track.
The remainder of the album is comprised of well produced, catchy tracks that include impressive feature artists, but seem to lack the strength of subject matter and lyricism displayed throughout “Don’t Don’t Do It.” As Jayson Greene put it in his Pitchfork review of N.E.R.D.’s “Nothing,” “[N.E.R.D. is] typically a clearinghouse for Pharrell’s bad ideas.” To be clear, “No-one Ever Really Dies” is far from a bad album—or a bad idea. It contains everything a good album should contain: expert production and mixing, a unique twist on multiple genres, skillful songwriting, and Rihanna. However, the project’s downfall resides within its lack of a unifying message, an oversight that renders much of the album unsalvageable.