All is changed utterly as Pharrell Williams returns to his under-the-radar band project after a seven years hiatus. In the interim Williams – better known as one half of the Neptunes production duo – has stumbled into unlikely pop stardom, courtesy of the cheesy Happy and the sleazy Blurred Lines (which he wrote and produced for Robin Thicke).
But far from building on the success of those singles with No One Ever Really Dies he instead swerves back towards the underground. Working with Chad Hugo, his partner from the Neptunes, and long-time N.E.R.D collaborator Shay Haley, he has delivered a dense, sometimes muggy but consistently fascinating plunge into the shadowy side of r’n b.
Previous N.E.R.D. projects failed to build serious moment and were seen as the indulgence of a big name producer. As insurance against a repeat of that indifference, here the trio rope in a power-list of collaborators, including Rihanna (rapping on Lemon) and, in a match forged in pop geek heaven, Kendrick Lamar and MIA (the fantastic, jittering Kites).
Indeed, it is the superhuman reach of the Williams/ Hugo rolodex that is perhaps the most immediately striking aspect of the project, with Ed Sheeran popping up on reggae-esque closer Lifting You and Outkast’s Andrew 3000 contributing some rhymes to Rollinem 7’s”. Records stuffed with cameos inevitably end up a hodge podge.
Here, though, the diverse cast merely puts into relief the virtuosity and expansive vision of N.E.R.D’s core trio which the band has deployed. The protean rumble of 1,000 couldn’t be further from the thruway brio of Happy while Secret Life Of Tigers is a groover that feels forever on the brink of tumbling into deep house.
Dense, aloof and quite thrilling if you give it the time – not only does No One Ever Really Dies restore Pharrell’s reputation as one of the great beat wranglers of the era, it’s also, hands down, N.E.R.D’s finest album to date.