Review Summary: N.E.R.D deliver an impressively consistent release but fail to convincingly develop their sound
The specific radio-friendly vibe to N.E.R.D’s music is a little hard to pinpoint. They have the aura of a rap-rock act, but the hip hop side of the music is the area that’s more highly accentuated, using guitar, bass and percussion as not much more than a backdrop. Conversely, the hip hop aspect isn’t the beefy, typical brand found pervading the airwaves either, as the vocal delivery is considered and leisurely. These kind of comments could lead one to insist that if neither element is as developed as it should be, then surely the music is of a questionable standard too? This may be generally true, but through the unique combination of the two sides of the coin, N.E.R.D appear to have unlocked the Achilles heel in each of the conflicting elements. The hip hop side has a simplistic charm to it that is seldom seen in similar mainstream acts, and the rock side may be understated, but combines with the vocals to create an intricate and impressively compulsive listening experience. Occasionally, the simplistic nature of the release orchestrates some noticeable misfires, but for the most part, the record is boisterous and with a significant edge to its obvious mainstream sensibilities, which is always refreshing.
The music throughout the album is shot through with a pleasant rock tone, with chattering drums, bulky basslines and some genuinely enjoyable riffs, all intrinsically linked by a tangibly funky vibe. Pharrell Williams’ delivery is a little underwhelming in terms of lyrical complexity and variation, but this suits the aural qualities of the sound impressively, merging into a singular beast and interlinking both elements with an abrasive aplomb. This can be seen on such songs as the title track, where the catchy if repetitive melody is complemented by Williams’ choral rendition of the lyrics. The combination strikes a balance between the two facets and they almost seem to simultaneously underscore each other, which is an notable feat for a band with minimal complexity such as this. Similarly, tracks such as ‘Maybe’, ‘Backseat Love’ and ‘Don’t Worry About It’ show that minimalism works in the band’s favour, as they create melody in the vocal patterns despite being set against the simple R&B/ rock stylistics. There’s also a noticeable sense of swing music to be found in some of the tracks, which adds a whole extra dimension to the sound. Such tidbits may be fleeting and occasionally underdeveloped, but they are well implemented, particularly against a music and vocal type that is liable to clash quite unpleasantly with such incorporations.
The efficiency of the music lies in the fact that it does what it does well. The other side to this, though, is the fact the album never seems to experiment or toy with conventions as much as it might, preferring to stick to the more commonplace sonancy of the individual musical elements. Such tracks as ‘Thrasher’ and ‘Drill Sergeant’ are standard exercises in their respective genres, and even though both songs have their plus points (‘Thrasher’ especially is an enjoyable rock track featuring a chorus with bags of attitude and a funky riff that perfectly captures the mood of the lyrics), they struggle to get off the ground in any way more than just being functional. ‘Wonderful Place’ is also guilty of this, utilising a mock whistling effect as the main tune amidst increasingly sappy lyrics. It is dull and has seems to stick out from the other tracks as a somewhat severe misfire, despite the fact that it follows ‘Breakout’, which features a similar tone but which is significantly more interesting. On the other side of the spectrum, single track ‘She Wants To Move’ and later composition ‘The Way She Dances’ are excellent, and as toe-tappingly infectious as such an album ought to be throughout. ‘The Way She Dances’ is especially memorable for its’ more R&B tone, except in the bridge section, which features some satisfying guitar work from Chad Hugo as a pace keeper as Williams declares, ‘when your eyes are closed, I hope I’m the man you see.’ A little cliché, possibly, but the effortless cool the majority of the release is carried off with ensures that it doesn’t collapse under the weight of its’ noticeable sap.
Fly Or Die
is an impressively solid outing for the trio, and has a ragged self-awareness that isn't present in such a noticeable quantity on previous releases. The production of the music is tinny but it mirrors the old skool hip hop sensibilities that are so lovingly woven into the fabric of the tonality, eschewing the processed beats for enjoyably tuneful instrumentation. Never on the release does it feel like the band are struggling for ideas, as each track represents a memorably unique sound, even going so far as to collaborate with Good Charlotte's the Madden brothers on ‘Breakout’. Regrettably though, Fly Or Die
never manages to transcend its' boundaries, picking a style and rigorously sticking to it throughout the whole duration. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the music is still very enjoyable and laden with pleasing asides, but the release would have benefitted from some musical expansion, possibly in terms of instrumentation to provide some more variation that isn’t simply cosmetic. It is for this reason the album plateaus after the first few tracks and continues on that constant path. No one could fault the band for consistency on this count, but a less inhibited sound would definitely have improved the release without altering the vibe too drastically.