You already know the story of the Neptunes. World-famous producers and songwriters, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, over the course of their decade-long career, have literally changed the course of music. It started with the redefining of hip-hop, the two of them wielding a minimalist, synthesized palette and a limitless imagination to create a sound that was as sophisticated and elegant as it was raw and rhythmic. Soon the Neptunes would alter the landscape of pop music, as well, creating driving rhythm & blues influenced work that artists in every genre would seek out to help establish their creative impulses. They have worked with everyone from Madonna and Justin Timberlake to Jay-Z and Gwen Stefani; from Britney Spears and Busta Rhymes to Kelis and the Clipse. Think of your favorite songs in the last ten years: most of them are Neptunes productions.
But N*E*R*D* are not the Neptunes, and the Neptunes are not N*E*R*D*.
“The Neptunes is what we do, but N*E*R*D* is who we are. It’s our life,” Pharrell would say in 2000, in describing the group that includes him, Chad and longtime friend and creative wunderkind, Shae. The three of them together combine for uninhibited explorations of sounds, emotions and truth, adhering to no agenda, subscribing to no rules. N*E*R*D* is the way they live their life, the way they see the world.
The words Pharrell used to describe N*E*R*D* in 2000 ring just as true in 2008, with the release of the group’s third album, Seeing Sounds. The album is a blistering mash-up of booming hip-hop beats and rollercoastering rock riffs, rumbling crunk rhythms and scintillating soul music. Whereas their first album, In Search Of…, was an imaginative, exploration of identities, and their second album, Fly Or Die, sought out the range of genres and sounds that have influenced the group, Seeing Sounds grinds everything together, evoking a sound that is un-tethered by preconceptions and convention. It is also an album that amplifies the style and attitudes that have made Pharrell, Chad and Shae transcendent cultural icons.
“We are only a slave to the energy, the energy and the emotion,” Pharrell describes. “We don’t care about genres. Why would we? For us, it was just about being what we are. We aren’t limited by anything other than our imaginations and what we feel, so why would we make music packaged into a little box?”
The album’s title gives a clue to this thinking. It follows the concept of synesthesia, which is a neurological sensation that occurs when the stimulation of one sense, involuntarily – and some say preternaturally – stimulates another: seeing the color red and feeling the taste of your mother’s blueberry pie, or hearing the whisper of wind through trees and feeling goose-bumps on your skin. More to the point, with N*E*R*D*, it could be hearing a musical note or a melody and seeing a flashback from the youthful romance of your adolescence.
“It was something we were watching on television, on the Discovery channel, on the phenomenon of synesthesia, and we realized that was how we see, hear and make music,” explains Shae, who serves as the group’s conceptual glue. “That’s how it’s always been, we just never knew there was a name to it. And when we learned about it, we knew it had to be the title of the album.”
“Every thought makes a sensory impression,” Pharrell says, “but sometimes the wires are a little crossed. When you hear a sound, instead of just your brain receiving electric impulses and then interpreting them, something happens and it invokes other things, a feeling, a memory, an emotion. That’s how we make music.”
Indeed, while Pharrell and Chad are classically trained musicians, sophisticated players who play all of their instruments on all their hit-records, they author the music of N*E*R*D* from a more honest, emotional, and ephemeral place. It is more than just musical notes on a 16-bar grid, or the demonstration of technical skill, or a hot beat. “It’s been five years since our last album and we’ve seen and heard and done a lot in our lives,” says Shae. “We feel free, and we need to express that. It’s like we’re doing it for the first time all over again.”
Seeing Sounds was recorded over the last fifteen months, and is a reflection of the life lived by the three men as they have traveled the globe and interacted with people from all walks of life. “In that way, the music is a reflection of the world in a way that producing for someone else could never be,” Pharrell explains.
The album’s first single, “Everybody Nose,” is a testament to how the restraints of conventional songwriting and rock music have been interminably clipped on this album. Its proclaimed taunts (“All the ladies standing in the line for the bathroom!”) are driven with a thundering bass that gives way to a deep, drum-heavy rhythm track. The song careens between the head-nodding bravado of hip-hop and the body-moving energy of dance or punk music. “And people know what we’re talking about,” Shae says of the song’s clever title. “It’s an observation of what we’ve seen and it captures that sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll mentality,” says Shae. Indeed, it is salacious and sexy, diplomatically dangerous. And while contrary to popular belief – it is an anti-drug song.
The overarching theme of Seeing Sounds is its energy. A song like “Killjoy” moves at a quick clip, like a fast-rap throwdown by Big Daddy Kane from back in the day, with a fierce percussive breakdown serving at its emotional center. “Anti-Matter” moves through several different tempos throughout the song, flirting with psychedelic guitar funk and a dirty south bounce, teasing the senses with its stop-and-start momentum. “Spaz” has the complex rhythms of Indian music that eventually gives way to noisy breaks. In forgoing all genres, or rather in not remaining faithful to any one genre, the boys in N*E*R*D* are creating their own.
“We made this music anticipating the live show,” explains Pharrell. “That was the most important thing. We know what we want to do on stage – we want to get fucking crazy, fucking insane – and if we make pussy-soft songs, no one’s going to want to jump.”
Pharrell takes it one step further. “No one will ever know what kind of a rush it is on stage to play these kinds of songs until you experience it for yourself. But that’s the thing, we wanted to give that feeling to our audience.”
Not all the tracks on Seeing Sounds are sonic monsters – they also display the group’s musical breadth. “Sooner or Later,” evokes the elegance of ’60s UK pop, while “Yeah You,” a first-person account of having a female stalker, flirts with smooth, ’70s soul-jazz.
In the end, it’s about transposing those feelings we all have – of rebellion and conflict, of confidence and insecurity – into a form of music. Seeing Sounds, hearing memories.
“Our fans are an army of individuals celebrating individuality,” says Pharrell. “They come from so many different walks of life, there are so many archetypes in our crowds, and they all meet up here in that moment with our music. That’s a beautiful thing and we have to honor that in our music.
“We’re not doing this for the money. We are just trying to keep the movement going. We owe it to the people. More than rock out, we want them to bounce all over the room and get lost in it.”
Be ready. N*E*R*D* is coming.
“What is a N*E*R*D*? N*E*R*D* stands for No One Ever Really Dies. The Neptunes is what we do, but N*E*R*D* is who we are. It’s our life. N*E*R*D* is just a basic belief, man. People’s energies are made of their souls. When you die, that energy may disperse but it isn’t destroyed. Energy cannot be destroyed. It can manifest in a different way but even then it’s like their souls are going somewhere. If it’s going to heaven or hell or even if it’s going into a fog or somewhere in the atmosphere to lurk unbeknownst to itself, it’s going somewhere.” – Pharrell Williams, 2000