N*E*R*D's debut album has followed one of the stranger paths ever taken from the recording studio to the record shelves. First of all, N*E*R*D isn't really even the name of the group here fleshed out by a third conspirator, N*E*R*D are actually the production duo the Neptunes. Heard of 'em? You've certainly heard their productions: hotter than levels pushed to 11, they're the masterminds behind chart-topping hip-hop and R&B recordings and remixes for Jay-Z, Mystikal, Sade, Moby, Beenie Man, Kelis, Limp Bizkit, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Noreaga, M.C. Lyte, and, oh yeah, the new full-length from reputed teen sensation Britney someone-or-other. Ring any bells?
But that's not even the weird bit after all, dance music and hip-hop producers are known for falling back on a baffling array of pseudonyms to cloak their mischief-making. No, the weird thing about In Search Of... is that listeners have been in search of the record for months now. A slew of features and reviews started appearing in magazines like The Source, Flaunt and Spin at least six months ago, but until now the CD has been pure vaporware. The recording wrapped in the first half of 2001, and promos went out to some journalists in anticipation of an August release. But weeks before its scheduled street date, N*E*R*D declared themselves unhappy with the product and announced their intention to re-record the entire album.
After a long wait, and what might seem like one of the more egregious bouts of artistic self-indulgence in the annals of pop music, the album's in the hands of reviewers and slated for a January 26 release date. Not having heard the original, I can't compare the two versions; reportedly, however, most of the more electronics-based parts were scrubbed and replaced with live drums and electric guitars. Whatever the original sounded like, it appears from the evidence here that the wait was worth it.
Clearly, N*E*R*D along with contemporaries such as Timbaland and OutKast are at the forefront of "mainstream experimentalism," the kind of envelope-pushing production that appeals directly to the top 10. Like Timbaland, they specialize in tight syncopations and lace their tracks with a sultry microfunk. Oddly, though, their fondness for chunky electric guitar and dry, gated snares equally recalls Steve Albini a notorious hip-hop hater. The result is a hotly sexed album bubbling with gasps and whispers and come-hither women's vocals ("Ooh baby you want me?/ Well you can get this lap dance here for free") and a perpetually building tension that never finds real release. The lyrics of songs like "Lap Dance" and "Tape You" a ballad to video voyeurism don't hurt the album's sexual charge, of course.
But despite N*E*R*D's official proclamation that the album was re-recorded because "the THC level wasn't high enough," their blunted beats aren't totally hedonistic. "Provider," a drug dealer's poignant kiss-on-the-cheek to his partner ("Goodbye beloved one/ Do you know what I am?/ If you don't see my face no more/ I'm a provider, girl/ Gotta face the streets tonight") balances the reality of the streets with the desire to settle down and raise a family. And counter to the thinly veiled advocacy of De La Soul's recent "Peer Pressure," there's even an ominous caution to the user who gets too high and embarrassingly "assed out."
Whatever the lyrical content, though, the pleasures of N*E*R*D ultimately come down to their exhilarating production, flush with the breathless energy of rock and starry-eyed with the psychedelic potential of the studio. Sure, some of the tracks begin to adhere to a distinct formula. "Lap Dance," "Brian," "Truth or Dare," "Am I High," "Rock Star" basically, half the album are all based around the simple motif of a grimy, repeating, two- or three-note guitar line and staccato snare shots; but for the lyrical content, they could practically be themes upon a single variation. No matter they still induce headrushes, even if they do tread perilously close to Limp Bizkit's rap-metal mosh rhythms. But other tracks go further: "Stay Together" fuses the Beatles' pastoralism and Prince's sexed-up funk; "Things Are Getting Better" draws on a sunny, skanking guitar line; "Tape You" seduces you with an infectious G-funk Moog line. And their hot-in-your-ear vocals, breathily crooned, never fail to charm: how could you fail to be moved by a line like "Girl, I feel just like a bird/ Though I am just a N*E*R*D"?
Oddly, for a crew that seems bent on re-inventing urban music, In Search Of... defies easy categorization between rock and hip-hop an interesting development in a year in which rock critics increasingly addressed rap by adopting it as a part of their own canon. In their photo shoots, the members of N*E*R*D (who are black) pose in redneck baseball caps, faded 501s and Led Zep T-shirts. Meanwhile, they've left their album almost sample-free; the notable exception is an extended lyric from the Beasties' Ill Communication, with Mike D rapping, "You can't believe I'm a rock star...." In response, N*E*R*D sing, "You think that you don't have to ever quit/ You think that you can get away with it/ You think the light won't be ever lit/ It's almost over now, it's almost over now." They're ambiguous sentiments: are they addressing themselves? Their fans? Other rock stars? Are they proclaiming their own days numbered? Whatever the case, for the moment it looks like they're getting away with it just fine and maybe even reinventing rock in the process.