April 8, 2004

The Ass as a Spaceship

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After producing hugely popular hits for the likes of Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, and Britney Spears, The Neptunes have decided what they really like to do in their spare time is not craft forward-sounding hip-hop, but instead, play derivative funk-rock in the comfort of a MTV-certified crib. And now, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo have decided to unleash the latest from their allegedly experimental side project to the masses. The question is why.

Are Pharrell, Chad, and the third N.E.R.D., Shae, trying to throw us a screwball? Is it all one big ploy? A tongue-in-cheek release for a good laugh? Pharrell can’t be serious with falsetto choruses sung over and over again like, “Her ass is a spaceship I want to ride,” or “She’s bad, bad, bad ass”? I mean, wah-wah guitar, lounge funk, whistles, hand-claps, and exuberant choruses from a team known for their unique hip-hop landscape of other-worldly sound effects and unique bass timbres? Granted, The Neptunes want to break out of their production archetype, but as masters of the mixer, they now decide to embrace live instrumentation? Maybe The Neptunes want to challenge their audience, question the machine of pop music, satirize lukewarm funk rock. What if N.E.R.D. wants to prove that they can take the music world by storm with nothing more than a few grooves and some authentic-looking head bobs? Yet for all of the absurd posturing of N.E.R.D., the group holds a straight face through the whole ordeal. There seems to be no meta-purpose to Fly or Die. There’s no sign that the group is taking themselves anything but seriously. The problem is as a “serious group,” N.E.R.D. fails miserably. The overblown album cover, the re-hashed studio sound, the mind-numbing lyrics struggle to reach even mediocrity. Though N.E.R.D. claims to play all the instruments on the album themselves, what’s the use if they barely have a creative bone in their guitar-picking, keyboard-pumping hands?

“Jump,” N.E.R.D’s collaboration with Joel and Benji Madden of Good Charlotte, takes its melodic thrust from a painfully somnambulistic keyboard vamp along with monotonous and infuriating guitar-bass hits. The song follows the path of a disaffected youth looking for consolation from his mother and father. Yet, the song seems less of a depiction of growing pains, and more of a reason to take the song’s title to heart. Or maybe your stereo would be kind enough to do you the favor by unplugging itself and taking a plunge out the nearest window. After hearing the pseudo-punk and painfully nasal Madden brothers shout the line “Jump!” exactly 150 times, with Pharrell cheerfully singing, “And I don’t care now/ ‘Cause we don’t get out/ I packed my things now/ Fuck this shit right now/ I’m checking out,” I thought my end was near. Thankfully, Pharrell made it all make sense by shouting “Astronaut suits by the BBC” eight times at the end of the song.

At times I still wonder if Fly or Die is actually satire, if in actuality, N.E.R.D. is mocking the pop world with a formulaic and ridiculous album. But, ultimately, N.E.R.D. feels like The Neptunes’ grand ego trip — their chance to come out of the studio and strut their stuff onstage. Potentially brilliant, but mostly asinine, this album falls toward the unhappy end of its title.

Archived article by Andrew Gilman
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer