N*E*R*D : In Search Of…

Take a deep breath and inhale.

As The Neptunes, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo are the only serious rivals to fellow Virginia Beach native Timbaland’s studio dominance over the smart end of US R&B and rap. Kelis, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Jay-Z, Mystikal and Ludacris are just a few of their production conquests to date. But by stepping in front of the mic as N*E*R*D (No-One Ever Really Dies), Williams and Hugo cross the fuzzy line between producer and artist – a shift which traditionally ends in hubris and banality.

Fortunately, ‘In Search Of…’ is a producer’s album in the best sense, showcasing the personal and lyrical over flashy technique. Williams and Hugo have plenty to say, reflecting on politics, sex and social injustice with an eccentric but over-arching intelligence lacking in most contemporary soul records. Comparisons with Sly Stone make sense, and the amped-up consciousness funk of early-’70s Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder hovers over this record like a guiding spirit.

Although they are former bandmates of Timbaland, Pharrell and Chad sidestep ultra-produced slice’n’dice collages for an organic gumbo of stuttering beatbox rhythms, gnarly basslines and Southern fried avant-lounge Moog-muzak. The effect is both comforting and jarring, a kind of home-brewed progressive alt-soul, from the woozy narcoleptic thunk-funk of ‘Brain’ to the urgent jazzoid strut of ‘Things Are Getting Better’. There are guests galore, from Kelis’ honeyed yelps on the militaristic sex-funk stomp of ‘Truth Or Dare’, to Lee Harvey and Vita on the pole-dancing fleshfest of ‘Lapdance’. Orgasmic moans and soft porn fantasies suffuse ‘Tape You’ and ‘Baby Doll’, but shorn of the boastful excesses of gangsta rap.

N*E*R*D deny that this is a drug-influenced album. Certainly, the doom-laden slowbeat tale of a coke pusher struggling to feed his family in ‘Provider’ is more social commentary than confessional, much like the loping portrait of a teenage dope fiend in ‘Bobby James’. Yet the album’s scattershot sheen of psychedelic FX, the euphoric stoner groove which underscores most tracks, and telltale titles like strung-out serenade ‘Am I High’ suggest that something stronger than Cristal was consumed in the studio. But with or without chemicals, ‘In Search Of…’ is awash with fuzzy-warm highs, hazy cosmic visions and exquisite ripples in the fabric of R&B as we know it.

Take a deep breath and inhale.

Stephen Dalton