N*E*R*D - Seeing Sounds

Posted June 11, 2008
Tags: N*E*R*D,

An album title can say a lot about an artist. For example, when someone named 50 Cent calls his...

Seeing Sounds Album Review

An album title can say a lot about an artist. For example, when someone named 50 Cent calls his album Get Rich Or Die Trying, we can assume they’re all about cash, and that they’ve been shot in the face nine times. Similarly, when N.E.R.D. titles their new album Seeing Sounds, an allusion to a neurological condition called synesthesia which causes people to combine senses (for example tasting smells or seeing sounds), we can immediately determine two things about them. One, they smoke a lot of pot. Two, they most likely suffer from producaphobia, a condition which makes people afraid to be “only” a producer and pathologically compels them to grab a mic and step into the spotlight. Producaphobia is highly contagious and lately has been spreading like the bubonic plague; for every producer who’s catapulted to stardom (Kanye), there are ten for whom it’s nearly fatal (I’m looking at you Rocko). So just how serious is N.E.R.D.’s case of producaphobia?

N.E.R.D., or as they’re more commonly known, “Pharrell and those other guys,” are the rock star division of The Neptunes empire. Not content to be America’s favorite club producers, the staggeringly successful duo of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo recruited their friend Shay Haley to form N.E.R.D. as an outlet for all the music they wanted to make, but couldn’t because Gwen Stefani insisted on spending entire tracks spelling the word “bananas.” Subsequently, N.E.R.D. has placed themselves at the forefront of the genre cross-pollination movement, recklessly covering their rhythmically dense beats with a pop-rock exterior. That makes the group, and most notably Seeing Sounds, the musical equivalent of watching Ludacris act in Crash: it’s surprising, even sometimes astounding, but no matter how good he is, in the end you’d rather he just stuck to rapping.

Unfortunately for them, N.E.R.D. is at their best when they sound like The Neptunes. Now there’s a lot of people out there who find the chaotically grooving Everybody Nose overwhelming, but those are probably the same people who have never tried sushi. Keep in mind that it’s a strange track for Pharrell and company to make too, the densely layered complexity of Everybody Nose is miles away from the starkly minimalist beats that made them famous, but this is the reason they made N.E.R.D., to push the genre to almost ridiculous limits. While I may not love it as much as the coked-up girls in L.A. who’ve adopted it as their anthem, there’s a sonically dangerous quality to the track that I can’t help but feel. Running in a close second is the aptly-named Spaz, a track that lays a soothing melody over darkly jerking drum lines and a hard-rock edged chorus, plus some absurdly styled lyrics. If Seeing Sounds was an entire album of Everybody Nose and Spaz (not to mention Yeah You and Kill Joy) I’d be a happy man. Then again, if artists catered to my every desire Gucci Mane would never rap again and Amerie and I would be vacationing on the French Riviera.

Like dating a girl with a great personality, I wanted to love Seeing Sounds, but I just couldn’t seem to commit. And then I realized one crucial thing; Pharrell just isn’t very good behind the mic. He can’t really rap, his lyrics almost entirely revolve around meeting girls, and his singing is decent at best. On tracks where he isn’t the sole vocalist that amateurish quality can work perfectly (see Hova’s I Just Wanna Love You), but Seeing Sounds spends a lot of time in the kind of pop-rock territory that demand a little too much of Pharrell’s frontman capabilities. On Windows he vocally fumbles across a sharp guitar line and hipster fueled percussion, complete with aggravating background vocals and a pointless monologue. Similarly, Sooner or Later takes a page out of the 70’s rock David Bowie sound book, attempting to expand a simple piano harmony into an epic chorus, but where the music explodes, Pharrell just sputters. That doesn’t mean he can’t pull off a great song, Love Bomb is a good cut in any genre, but unfortunately it’s more rare than common on Seeing Sounds.

In the end I can appreciate Seeing Sounds for the vastly creative work it is, but I just can’t bring myself to like it that much. The public will never embrace N.E.R.D. like we have The Neptunes, not because we don’t “get it,” but because this incarnation of Pharrell’s musical multiple personalities just isn’t as good. Someday we’ll find a cure for producaphobia, until then...

DJBooth Rating - 3.5 Spins

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Posted June 11, 2008
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