Post-Rappers' Delight

For every action, a reaction. Chicago has its generation of knob twiddlers—the guys who strip rock down to its baser elements and beyond, whose mellow mood music swaps swagger for solemnity, cock for contemplation. They're allowed to, though. White boys always plead intellect when it comes to experimentation. Making order out of chaos is a necessary step.

Rap's next generation doesn't have the luxury of minimalism—besides, how much more spare could you get than Miami's skittish bass, or Oakland's lethargic trunk funk? Or even dancefloor New York's heritage of one-loop-one-sample, of taking a song of old, adding four tracks of percussion and a rapper or three and calling it a day? So crank it up, kick down the walls. The way to make hip-hop better is to basically ignore it. It's in there—in the bones—so it's OK if it's out there too.

Call it post-rap. Check the backstory and you'll find Hot 97 credentials, but up front is a whole different tale—MCs playing the guitar, producers sampling Bollywood riddims, rappers who can't sing but do anyway. Hip-hop's stagnation is making the iconoclasts antsy, but there's no tradition of rebellion in the genre, at least not one that calls the sonics into question. Rap gets smarter. Rap gets dumber. But rap remains unequivocally rap.

N.E.R.D. shake you all night long.
photo: Terry Richardson
N.E.R.D. shake you all night long.

Details

N.E.R.D.
In Search Of . . .
Virgin import

Saul Williams
Amethyst Rock Star
American/Island Def Jam

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Not anymore. With hip-hop finally out of its awkward teenage years, during which it had something to prove, it's gently easing into its avant phase. Even the radio sounds weird—Timbaland's horror bounce, those blaring, drunk trumpets on the new Wu single. No matter how trifling the subject matter, hip-hop's producers have taken it upon themselves to render all that's mundane abstract.

More than any of their peers, the Neptunes have steered the new-money yacht into uncharted waters. To hear Pharrell Williams, the more loquacious half of the duo, tell it, there's subtext to everything they do, using some artists as stepping-stones and subverting others with double entendre. But the candy is sweet, and more and more artists are taking the bait—Noreaga and No Doubt, Babyface and Britney, Fabolous and Daft Punk. Nowadays, the Neptunes sound blings wordlessly off the hyper-platinum airwaves. Shit, they're so ubiquitous, they even bite themselves.

But who knew that, underneath that shiny skin, lay indie souls with unusual muses? Dominating the radio got them an artist deal with Virgin, but what Virgin got was something else altogether. N.E.R.D.—an alias for the Neptunes and their occasional pal Shay—isn't your average side project, which can sell strictly on the strength of its star power. Pharrell may be hip-hop's most visible video 'ho, but he's still a cipher to most. Hypothetically, the sound is the star—a Neptunes production is practically identifiable by sonar—and within hip-hop confines, it certainly is. But In Search Of . . . , the N.E.R.D. debut, shows restless talents, musicians with so many good ideas that their hip-hop production seems like an exercise in cultural politics, like it's become their burden to wise up the masses.

Nevertheless, the path of the N.E.R.D. album has been fraught with disaster almost from its inception. Advances have been floating for almost a year, and in its first incarnation, In Search Of . . .was fully digital, a synth-heavy affair that kept the group's tools of production the same, but used them to blissfully different ends. It was a gust of madness through otherwise complacent, unmoving trees, daring anything in its path to calm it down. A couple of months ago, after three planned release dates had come and gone, that version of the album was shelved, and the group headed back to the lab to re-record the album from scratch, top to bottom, using live instruments.

The album so nice it had to be conceived twice, this new version, now scheduled for stateside release in January, lacks a little bit of the anger and urgency that made the original so incendiary. The live instruments—courtesy of Minneapolis funk outfit Spymob, a Neptunes discovery—are sprightly and free and feel like they were recorded in one hot box of a recording studio. But In Search Of . . .is a thoroughly modern record that feels more at home in the digital realm than the analog. (The highly recommended first version of the album was released in the U.K. without the group's consent; pick it up at amazon.co.uk.)

Williams and Chad Hugo successfully scavenge hip-hop's secret dustbin—funk-metal, alt.country, melodic pop, prog rock, new wave—for their peculiar sound. Virginia Beach, their hometown, was festering with all these things in a stew of suburban malaise. On "Bobby James," Pharrell moans, "I'm just one hit away from being passed out, young, and assed out." On the hustler's tale "Provider," the most badass country this side of Cash (take that, Hank III!), he sings with (Charley) Pride, "So I'm driving this truck down 95/I pray to God I make it home alive/I don't get pulled over by the man/I just wanna make it home to hold your hand."

N.E.R.D. make a point of injecting grit into the unlikeliest of places. "Walk up in the club with a bunch of thugs," Pharrell intones on the otherwise jaunty "Things Are Getting Better," "Said I was a nerd but I ain't a punk/If you talk shit, then prepare to thump." Throughout, slippery keys do a delicate dance on and around the correct notes and patterns as worlds collide. "Run to the Sun" sounds like what might happen if the Time got pissy with the Beach Boys. In "Brain," Williams hones his Jim Morrison—"I love how you think/You think oh so deep/And share your thoughts with me"—but still can't emote much beyond a fey whisper.

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