I would love to be a fly on the wall when the hip-hop heads of the world listen to N.E.R.D.'s debut album the first time. "In Search of ..." is the greatest practical joke in hip-hop history. The marketing of the hook-heavy, club-ready first single, "Lapdance," and the nature of the group members' past work have set up a bait-and-switch of epic proportions. Well, I think it's funny. But I'm jumping ahead. All great jokes have a strong setup, and the history of N.E.R.D. is no exception.
The first thing you need to know to appreciate the irony of "In Search of ..." is that N.E.R.D. (No one Ever Really Dies) is the performing name of megahot producing team The Neptunes. If you don't know The Neptunes, then you must have been avoiding hip-hop and R&B for the past two years. Hailing from the same part of southeastern Virginia that birthed Missy Elliot and Timbaland, The Neptunes -- Pharrell, Shay and Chad -- have produced recent hits and smash videos for Ol' Dirty Bastard, Jay-Z, Tha Liks, Babyface, Ray J, Mystikal and Kelis. The 'Tunes even helmed a cut on the new 'N Sync album, "Celebrity." The trio's harsh, staccato beat-programming and tongue-in-cheek backing vocals are its trademarks -- the sound du jour for urban music. It was only a matter of time before the collective did what all hot production teams do these days: make its own record.
In theory, this is a bad idea. Hip-hop DJ/producer-centered albums usually consist of said producer providing beats, then a hodgepodge of MCs and singers performing over those beats, with uneven, forgettable results. Sure, Pete Rock's sublime 1998 debut, "Soul Survivor," was an exception. Prince Paul's "A Prince Among Thieves" (1999) was a triumph, but it had the distinction of being the first hip-hop opera. The odds of The Neptunes' album being even remotely good were dim, especially since their signature sound is heading for overexposure.
As it turns out, "In Search of ..." is a good album; time may reveal it to be great. Instead of proving monotonous, Pharrell, Shay and Chad's old-school 808 drum-machine programming is a unifying sonic theme. Each cut on the record builds on the next until reaching a multisong crescendo every third track or so. The trio also throws in surprisingly subtle strings and guitar riffs in unexpected places, such as the interlude on "Truth or Dare." Most of the deceptively simple cuts are catchy, and they get better when heard one after another. N.E.R.D.'s persona -- one part hip-hop trickster, a la Kool Keith, one part righteously indignant former, well, nerd -- shines through on each track. But here's the kicker -- it's not a hip-hop album.
Oh, it has some rhyming, including on the first single, "Lapdance." And there lies the second facet of the setup. With its characteristic staccato beat-programming, stereotypical misogynistic hip-hop subject, and that catchy, horny hook of "You can get this lapdance here for free," "Lapdance" offers no hint that "In Search of ..." will be anything but an album full of party tunes. Except, that is, for the quick snatch of lyric, "politicians sound like," which makes the whole song a metaphor about politics and, in the process, more interesting than just another booty-shaking song. And it provides a brief clue that if you're looking for more stuff like Mystikal you're in the wrong place. Eleven of the album's 13 tracks feature straight-up singing, with frontman Shay belting his heart out.
Now that it's been established that "In Search of ..." doesn't sound much like The Neptunes, what does it sound like? What is this thing called N.E.R.D. -- a ghetto "3 Feet High and Rising?" AC/DC as filtered through Run-DMC? A really angry P.M. Dawn? I think it sounds like the album Dirk Diggler (the young XXX icon in "Boogie Nights") would have done if he got his demo back from the producer: charmingly cheesy rock music performed by vocally challenged '80s porn stars subliminally influenced by "King of Rock" as it played on the radio in the background. N.E.R.D. has taken the inherent aggression of hip-hop and rock and synthesized them into a hybrid that leans more toward the latter, but with a peculiar urban slant that contrasts with the typical rap-metal assault.
Shay doesn't sing very well, but he's so earnest that you can't help but be charmed by his vocal stylings. When he courts a girl on "Run to the Sun," his voice cracks over the bubbly synthesizer lick, and you sense that this is his very last chance to get the girl to go out with him, and he knows it. On "Provider," his voice conveys the desperate weariness of a drug dealer's life. The singer slips from aggressive ("Rock Star Poser") to cautionary ("Bobby James") to earnest ("Run to the Sun") to downright goofy ("Stay Together") without missing a step.
All this without invoking, or relying on, their high-profile production style. Yeah, it would be great to be that fly on the wall when unsuspecting hip-hop fans pick up "In Search of ..." looking for more tunes like that Ray J single -- or, for that matter, like "Lapdance." It won't be what they expect, but hell, it might be good for them. And if you planned on skipping it because you don't like what the Neptunes have done to date, you might want to give it a listen too.