No_one Ever Really Dies: even the acronym by which American funk rock supergroup N.E.R.D — Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo, and Shay Haley — were founded upon suggests a non-traditional marriage between chic nonchalance and latent sentimentalism. Consider the collective sense of fervid urgency that is currently igniting the veins of millions of disenfranchised American and global citizens, inject a lethal dose of vogue funk and bottle it up in vivacious, supercool packaging: this more or less captures the sonic universe defined on N.E.R.D’s self titled, fifth studio album.
People began taking note of signs posted around Los Angeles and featured at Tyler the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival that read “No One Ever Really Dies” in late October, 2017. A few days later, the N.E.R.D proceeded to release No_one Ever Really Dies’ lead single “Lemon” before debuting the full LP a few days later at ComplexCon. It marks the first release for the famed group since 2010’s Nothing.
Since their inception, N.E.R.D has been raveled in collective confusion — not undue to their own struggles in defining their own artistic focus. The group’s first album, In Search Of, was originally produced digitally, but was pulled from the shelves of record stores worldwide and re-recorded utilizing live instrumentation from the rock band known as Spymob. Its re-release was met with ubiquitous disapproval from critics, giving way to another two albums plagued by their supposed failure to define a singular style.
Perhaps N.E.R.D’s first three albums were simply misunderstood by the masses, or maybe they served as quasi “trial and error” sessions in which the group refined their own characteristic style. One thing is certain: the outfit’s production M.O has always strayed from the traditional linear structure. Each of N.E.R.D’s five studio albums see them taking increasingly audacious risks, and No_one Ever Really Dies looks to be their most rewarding effort yet.
It kicks off with the exuberant frenzy that is “Lemon,” featuring one of contemporary pop music’s most exalted figures: Rihanna. The 29-year-old global superstar bops from verse to verse with palpable swagger, as if she’s playing pop-scotch on the red carpet.
“Lemon’s” sample of a man yelling “wait a minute” is former United States Senator, Arlen Specter, at a 2009 Pennsylvania town hall meeting while “shout out to them people” and “mad ethnic right now” are both phrases sampled from a viral twitter video originally posted by a rapper by the name of Retch. As the record bounces between verses, it usurps the listener with its dazzling flow. Before long, the project’s focus begins to take root.
Much like adjacent industry colleagues Gorillaz, N.E.R.D’s propensity to showcase a plethora of contemporary styles runs the risk of seeming misconstrued, pulling away from the album’s central focus; some would argue that such overbearing features can make such a project seem disjointed, but it pays off on No_one Ever Really Dies. Rather than cloud the group’s artistic intuition, each embellishment serves an integral purpose in building the stylistic framework by which listeners will contextualize the album.
High profile vignettes from artists like Future, Wale, Gucci Mane, M.I.A, and Frank Ocean imbue the album with a sense of urgency and are an relevant statement about the current musical zeitgeist heading into 2018.
“Voilà,” featuring Gucci Mane and Wale, carries the momentum onward. Since being released from prison in 2016, Radric Davis — better known by Gucci Mane — has turned a 180. “They think I’m a magician” sings Davis, alluding to the fact that the general public is undoubtedly shocked at his life changes over the last two years, and that many people doubted him along the way. The Atlanta rapper revealed in an interview with TIME that, during his stint in prison, sobriety and exercise helped him lose 90 pounds and get his life back together.
Gucci Mane’s raspy verses are not typically associated with the sparkling funk-verve that characterizes N.E.R.D, but his lyrics add a serene sense of tranquility to the track: “I might pull up on a skateboard with me and P. Hoes gon’ still pay me attention” he raps. Gucci Mane’s fabled status in trap music history is a welcome blessing on “Voilà.”
Pharell picks up the pace immediately afterward with “1000.” Turning a corner, he chants the intro, “Kinetic energy a thousand times higher!” As the drums halt to half speed, morphing into a tribal rythmn, Future belts his verse, “Rick Owens boots, I’m walkin’ on a few thousand” sings the Atlanta trap superstar. “1000” is an honest, yet ostentatious glimpse into the life of some of hip hop’s wealthiest superstars: complete with designer boots, Ferragamo belts, and models in the bed.
Pivoting from the gaudy introspection on “1000,” N.E.R.D moves into outward social commentary at breakneck speed with “Don’t Don’t Do It!” The track, which features the father of modern hip hop, Kendrick Lamar, is a statement detailing the discriminatory behavior of law enforcement and, on a larger scale, society as a whole.
“Pac-man wanna prosecute you. Raise your hand up, and they’ll shoot ya’. Face off, face off.” spits Kendrick Lamar, the beat carrying his conscious rhymes a mile a minute, “Adolf Hitler. Grandkids slayed off. N****s, same rules, same chalk. Different decade, same law.” Lamar’s verse is more than simply an apt statement confronting the malevolent behavior of systemic racism — it’s a warning call. “Soon or later sides gon’ switch. You know Johnny got that itch,” raps Lamar, “How many more of us gotta see the coroner? Slain by the same badge, stop, wait, brake, fast!”
N.E.R.D’s ability to pivot from effervescent dance jams to socially-conscious funk ballads at headlong speeds — all the while utilizing atmospheric transitions and carbonated beat change ups — is mesmerizing. No_one Ever Really Dies seems to weave into one theme and out of another before the listener can make the conscious realization that the song’s structure had changed. The album’s biggest success is its mellifluous ability to shape shift and keep listeners engaged the whole way through. Listeners find themselves knee deep into a pop tsunami for one moment, and are catapulted into an incendiary diatribe on today’s current political situation the next.
“It’s crazy out here and right now, what we’re discovering is the truth only matters when it sounds cool. And when it doesn’t sound cool, people just choose to not fucking believe it,” explained Pharell during the album’s listening session. “So, that’s how they’re gonna use their minds. We need to use our minds a little bit stronger.”
Nearing the end of the album, N.E.R.D orchestrate a symphonic finish — complete with features from such fabled artists as Andre 3000 and, to a lesser extent, Ed Sheeran. “Rollinem 7’s” lyrics stream from the Outkast co-founder’s mouth in effortless fashion.
The combination of M.I.A and Kendrick Lamar on “Kites” is a further testament to N.E.R.D’s versatility and their ability to mold to fit any of the featuring artists’styles.”I’m letting off kites over barriers” sings M.I.A, the Sri Lankan avant pop legend alludes to the absurdity of nation’s having borders. Her ultimate goal, like other artists’ on the LP, is to make music that transcends the unavailing barriers that serve only to divide us as a human race.
Consistent with M.I.A’s verse, N.E.R.D’s newest album is a virtuosic, funk driven house party rooted in social and political commentary. Rather than serve as purely an escape, No_One Ever Really Dies acts as an atmospheric groove that exists entirely within the gloomy corners of the current political period. N.E.R.D is back to inspire change in provocative fashion, and their fifth project is a chaotic affair deeply rooted in the ongoing narrative of social progress.