N*E*R*D doesn’t usually do politics. The frantic rap-rock fusion of their early work like In Search Of… and Seeing Sounds found its beauty in new love, standing in the line for the bathroom and bouts of synesthesia. They make rock candy out of disparate musical elements that are downright beautiful at its best. “Happy” and “Love Bomb” were two of the first songs I felt genuinely compelled to learn on the piano.
Yet the sounds that Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo, and Shay Haley are seeing on their long-awaited and newly-released fifth album No_One Ever Really Dies are overtly political. An album inspired by turmoil under President Donald Trump and thoughtless Black death sounds great on paper, but there’s one Pharrell quote, in particular, that I couldn’t get out of my head before I pressed play:
“The New Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues. The New Black dreams and realizes that it isn’t a pigmentation; it’s a reality. And it’s either gonna work for you or it’s gonna work against you.”
I remember the shock I felt when I heard Pharrell say those words to Oprah Winfrey in 2014, the same year that he called Michael Brown “bully-ish.” Was he really that detached from what was going on? Had he just articulated himself poorly? Had his success really built a wall around his Blackness? Either way, one of my favorite producers ever had joined Raven-Symoné in spitting on my cupcake and selling it to me as frosting.
Skateboard P realized he’d made some mistakes and slowly began his pivot to wokeness. He offered up an equally clumsy apology about “not making excuses” for who he is later that year. He produced Kendrick Lamar’s anthemic “Alright” in 2015. He served as a producer for the Oscar-winning Hidden Figures in 2016, a film about Katherine Johnson and other Black women at NASA responsible for the first human spaceflight in the late 1950s that had some confusing racial politics of its own. He even took a knee in support of Colin Kaepernick during a show in Charlottesville, VA earlier this year.
Fast forward to December 2017, and not only does a new N*E*R*D album exist, but it’s one that’s rooted in surface level calls to activism and featuring songs inspired by the shooting of Keith Scott in North Carolina. The Future-featuring “1000” is a prime example, a song that tries to channel the righteous energy of protest into a song about lavish living. Pharrell screaming “Holy shit it’s working / No more Trail of Tears”—as if the aftershock of the Dakota Access Pipeline can’t still be felt—feels out of place next to Future bragging about new coupes and Ferragamo belts. The video for the song featuring real protest footage is bookended by a claim that “N*E*R*D and Columbia Records do not support or condone violence in any shape or form. “We only have internet access” renders the whole message as toothless as it is clumsy.
The rest of the album benefits from having outside voices deliver some of its messages. Kendrick Lamar’s verse on the Scott-inspired “Don’t Don’t Do It!” runs a mile a minute, injecting a sense of urgency missing elsewhere. The abstract color of André 3000’s struggle with a police officer on “Rollinem 7’s” elicits more feeling than general platitudes about “coming together.” “Kites” with M.I.A. and the second feature from Kendrick weave a story of kites smuggling a message of hope and equality, which is about as close as any of the songs on here come to meeting its reach and grasp halfway.
It’s a shame that a lot of the politics found on No_One Ever Really Dies feel so forced because the music comes close to N*E*R*D’s best. The quiet piano stabs and rolling drums and guitar licks of “Deep Down Body Thirst” are the kind of beautiful danceable mash the band is known for. The gossamer synthetic chords and harmonies of “Lightning Fire Magic Prayer” almost make up for the fact that the song is about four-and-a-half minutes too long. Gucci Mane rhyming over crunchy guitar riffs transitioning to Wale rhyming over steel drums shouldn’t be as seamless as it is on “Voila.” There are nuggets of musical beauty to be found under the wreckage.
I appreciate Pharrell and his contributions to music. I also appreciate how hard it is for Black creatives to simply exist without being either exceptional or the next canceled celebrity. This industry isn’t kind to the Black people who have blazed trails for decades and Pharrell, in particular, has always stood as a testament to Black kids simply being who they are. He’s grown since sitting down with Oprah, but he’s not perfect.
I want to believe that the overbearingly sloppy wokeness of this N*E*R*D album is an olive branch from a star who is making amends for boneheaded remarks of the past. I also want to believe that Pharrell can do even better than this in the future.