N.E.R.D’s ‘No One Ever Really Dies’: A Review
Oh, hey by the way...
N.E.R.D is back! Their 5th studio album, No One Ever Really Dies, dropped on December 15th behind a super-extended, jealousy-inducing roll-out which included a surprise listening party/concert for those in attendance at this year’s ComplexCon. Like any real fan, I scanned YouTube for any hint of this exclusive performance, so for me, I—sadly—wasn’t as excited as I was when they first alluded to working on new music. Nevertheless, midnight came, and I plugged in. From private listening parties, to this Guardian interview, I had a good idea of what to expect: more politics than you might expect from the band. Which, indeed, was exactly what I was hoping for. Described as a critique of life on Earth from the view of outer space, these hip-hop aliens have something to say.
The truth is, back in 2013 I sent a DM to i am OTHER that felt more like a message in a bottle than any real correspondence. When you send blind messages to accounts that have thousands and thousands of followers, there’s no way to know if it was received especially when there’s no response back. And while I don’t know if it was read, I know my intention was only to say thank you for the music thus far AND to encourage more discourse and messaging in the music moving forward. What N.E.R.D has done with this album has surpassed my expectations. The intentionality behind (almost) every song lyric is not only impressive, it is unique in its approach and timing.
I guess I’m going track-for-track on this one, something I haven’t done before. I’ll preface this by saying this was way harder than I thought it would be. I mean, how many different ways can you say this is whole album is “woke”? Despite some negative reviews, history will prove that these type of noisemakers are exactly what we need right now in this pivotal moment for our country and our world.
Lemon feat Rihanna
The truth will set you free / but first it’ll piss you off.” - Gloria Steinem
Truthfully, what can I add about this track that hasn’t already been said? Rihanna got bars? Done. This track was originally meant for Diddy (“I told you we won’t stop”)? Done. Mette Towley is a bad-ass, bald beast? Done. Since this was the first single, the day it dropped was probably the most excited I got about this album because the song came unexpectedly: I’m a sucker for excitement. The video gives me futuristic Janet Jackson “Pleasure Principle” vibes (it also so happens that “Pleasure Principle” might be one of my favorite videos of all time).
Deep Down Body Thurst
If you don’t pay attention to the lyrics, you definitely get that throwback N.E.R.D/Neptune’s feeling. Pay attention, and you know exactly who the target of this song is.
Oh, you won't get away, yeah / Oh, and hey, by the way / Man, f*ck what you say / We're gonna climb your wall/Ok Murphy's Law / It'd be worth the fall / I sure hope you're just talking, man / And that's all /' Cause we'll go over it, under it, around it / We have the gall
Top 5 track for me off this album.
Voilà feat Gucci Mane and Wale
This is a feel-good song including of a robotic sounding Skateboard P giving a positive mantra for us to live by with a little help from your musical "friends":
You have the power to / Change the course of the night / Take this time to recharge (hold on, hold on) / Yourself up 'til the lights go off / Look around, we're your friends / We'll be here in every life / Every time you need a lift (hold on, hold on) / You'll know tricks, we'll pull it off
The second half of the song is basically what all of us in and from the DMV (DC, Maryland and Virginia) have been waiting for: Pharrell’s iteration of Go-go Music. With a quick hit from Wale (whose vocals are nearly 10 years old at this point), it seems more like a preview of what to expect in the future. We’ll be patiently waiting until then *hint, hint*.
Random interjection: I was out a few weekends ago, and a heated discussion ensued about whether or not it was O.K. for Wale to claim the DMV if he’s from Gaithersburg (the words of the counter, not mine). I think if you’re in this area, whether you were born here or not, DMV is what you claim. I’ll reserve claiming DC for those born in the District.
1000 feat Future
Something about this song feels like a battle cry—marching orders of sort. There’s a stark dichotomy between the beat/visuals and Future’s lyrics. Perhaps this was on purpose. Materialism vs “assembling a riot.” Brand-Name dropping vs the urgency in the rhythm. Maybe, since this was the second official single off the album, it’s purpose is to ease listeners into the change of direction the band has for its lyrical messaging. The video is no question a call for society to take a deep, hard look at not only the unrest we’ve seen develop over the last few years, but the reasons behind them. The visual also highlights a sort of transformational experience that must occur to not only ascend to a higher level of consciousness but to build the strength combat these social issues (I think?).
Don’t Don’t Do It
Described as the centerpiece of the record, “Don’t Don’t Do It” is about the fatal shooting by police of Keith Scott in North Carolina in 2016.
“This was something I saw on the news. We have that crazy, crazy man [running the country] but also they have police that shoot unarmed black people the whole time. It rains and they shoot black people,” he says of the song that shares its musical DNA with OutKast’s Hey Ya. “I hid the story in something that’s so jubilant because that way you won’t miss the message.’’ -Pharrell Williams (Source)
Kendrick Lamar’s verse on this track is incredible, as usual. Top 5.
Detach yourself (let go, let go, let go, let go, let go)
Be back yourself (let go, let go, let go, let go, let go)
And dream as yourself
Be seen as yourself (let go, let go, let go, let go, let go)
Beam as yourself
Scream as yourself (let go, let go, let go, let go, let go)
And be king of yourself
When I first saw the track list for this album, I was super excited to hear this one. While the production is excellent and the track is in itself very interesting and futuristic, I am still learning to love this one. It’s like part reverse psychology part reminder that revolutions (with revolution defined as a sudden, radical, or complete change) and innovators are often dismissed as crazy until everyone else can see the vision. Sound familiar?
You know that you got it right when people ask, "Hey, what are you on?" / Well, this is the vivid state that revolutions are born
Lightning Fire Magic Prayer
The world is a projection of our collective consciousness. If our collective consciousness reaches that place of peace, harmony, laughter and love, it will be a different world. -Deepak Chopra
(Click for snippet)
Currently in the running for my favorite track, it’s a staggering 7 minutes and 44 seconds of amazing. One of the best parts about it is that Rocket Williams’ (Pharrell’s 8? year old son) little self has vocal credits on the track. Singing the letter G turns into something that sounds more like they’ve tapped into some hypnotic frequency that only those deep into the practice of meditation know. It's imaginative, aspirational, calming and intricate all at the Same. Damn. Time.
Come on now, lightning fire magic prayer / I can't believe it's never been done / Imagine if we once, all hands in the air? / For that lightning fire magic prayer
Rollinem 7’s feat Andre 3000
Like all of the tracks on this album, “Rollinem 7’s“ doesn’t follow typical song structure. Similar to Jazz Music of the past, which was often criticized for it’s unpredictable composition and perceived lack of classical musical structure, this album can come across frenetic and disjointed. For me, this is exactly why there is almost a hidden genius behind the boards. I say almost because these are beats by N.E.R.D, of course, so this is a given. Extremely ambitious and genre-melding, this deserves mainstream play to shake up the homogeneous tendencies of FM radio.
Genius + genius = more than we deserve. Andre 3000’s contribution is enormous as it’s been a while since we’ve heard him spit. To rhyme pterodactyls with fractals...I mean...what else can I say about this? I will add that the second half of the song hits me more than the first, but that’s neither here nor there.
**side note: this entire write-upis much more involved than I had anticipated, but as you may have noticed, this blog is about me not only having a space to express myself, it is also one of the ways I practice my own form of art: writing. Carry on.
Kites feat Kendrick Lamar and M.I.A.
This song is like a meeting of cultures fighting their own battles and realizing that their struggles are very similar. Directly quoted, this song is “about teenage life living in a refugee situation because you were trying to find a different life.”
Sometimes in life we can think no one understands our pain or our problems. And while no two problems are the same, we all got ‘em. Kendrick speaks from his experience as an African American man in our current environment. M.I.A. also appears to be speaking from her specific point of view. According to sound engineer Mike Larson, “she's talking about refugees and women's struggles for equality and immigrants.”
With moments that sonically teleport you to another part of the world that’s totally unfamiliar yet curiously comforting, the combination of lyrics and sound make this track Top 5 for sure. None of my words will do this song justice.
Secret Life of Tigers
Ya, You're saying welcome to the jungle (come on) / Got all this freedom in your room / Your mom's against the immigration / Your dad's against your right to choose
When Pharrell says (during the friends listening party) this track is “the revenge to the sickness of the conservative group of people in this country,” I can feel his passion. There is also something endearing and perhaps a bit naive about the fact that he believes that so many of these teens are rebelling against their parents’ conservative views by way of partying and doing drugs. As a sort of “f*ck you” to their parents, they realize that one day their parents will die, and they will take over and do the right thing. This is the point where I have to disagree.
I’ve seen first hand that many of these kids are just mirror images of their parents who “rebel” and do drugs because the CAN. They get away with it, and it has little to no effect on their present or their future. Privilege is set up in such a way that while on the surface it looks like a form of rebellion—which it is, but simply from their parents’ strict rules rather than their political viewpoints—-post-rebellion, these kids still harbor the same opinions and political leanings. These are the ones that are silent when they see injustice happening. They are the ones that quietly vote their own best interest away. In the shadows, they party and rebel all while the “rebel flag” is hanging in their homes, and they see nothing wrong with it. I won’t say all, and I won’t say most, but these kids exist, and they aren’t going anywhere. To affect change, we need more of the rebels that this song refers to and not the other ones.
Lifting You feat Ed Sheran
When I first started listening to Ed Sheran, in my head, I described his voice as shades of blue. Previously I have mentioned that Pharrell has sort of turquoise voice, so it’s only fitting the combination of these voices presents itself on a roots reggae-esque beat. You would think an ocean of voices backed by a digitized version of the music I grew up on would totally win me over, but I can’t help but giggle every time I hear it. The struggle accent is...cute.
Overall, the album is an ambitiously unapologetic, sonic melodrama that could easily turn certain audiences away. They’ve traded in their melodic fantasies of multiple women and post-teen angst for politics and galvanizing the masses. I’ve seen die-hard fans say they “aren’t feeling” this album. Perhaps they are stuck on the old N.E.R.D aesthetic for their own reasons. For me, if an artist doesn’t evolve and use their art to conceptualize this growth, are they true artists or just culture vultures?