Wings of Change

The Neptunes get sensitive while hiding beats under rock

Nowadays, the Neptunes are as famous as most of the rich men they've made richer, and even if omnipresent video sidekick Pharrell Williams gets more small-screen time than male enhancement ads, it's hard to argue he and his reticent partner Chad Hugo don't deserve rock star status. If we weren't in a recession and if the rest of the world didn't hate us, you could say the Neptunes' moneyed, party-hearty synth-bounce was the soundtrack for a moneyed, party-hearty zeitgeist of sorts, which maybe it still is. As it stands, they're just the priciest, most recognizable beat aesthetes in the world. And though they can't quite do whatever they want—hit-making still looms large on their to-do list—how they use their power and smarts will have a decent-sized impact on nothing less than the future of hip-hop.

Fly or Die, the second album from their rock-hop side project N.E.R.D., offers only modest clues about their forthcoming adventures in sound, mostly because Williams and Hugo's goals seem relatively modest. The Neptunes embody both the great and not-so-great parts of hip-hop's rampant commerciality—like Timbaland (obviously), they make you wonder what kind of sounds can't get on the radio, and yet they're the most conspicuous producers around at a time when platinum rap has made their formula inescapable. This combination of genius and ubiquity made N.E.R.D.'s 2002 debut seem like a chance for Williams and Hugo to embrace their inner rock star and even more extreme shit. Which it was, sort of—In Search Of . . . had all sorts of slick, guitar-based party jams, though the overbearing rap-rock-isms (courtesy of Minneapolis funk band Spymob) took the low-IQ sleaze beyond the realm of deliberate dumbness.

The mellower, more songful Fly or Die says less about Hugo and Williams as big-eared auteurs than as skilled studio men able to integrate bits of Britpop, classic rock, and '70s soul into their studied flash. This time around, they handle the instruments themselves (Hugo on guitar, Williams on drums, both on synths and miscellaneous) and their rudimentary riffs and occasionally sloppy drumming give off a grimy charm. A lot of it just sounds like Neptunes-plus-guitars. Not a bad thing.

The bouncier stuff almost matches the undeniable presence of the Neptunes' best productions, with Williams (helped out by underused if not useless third party Shay) setting his gotta-get-laid croon over riff-heavy grooves augmented by piano, random keyboards, shout-along choruses, and group chants. Still, too many tracks fly or die on the strength of Williams's underdeveloped sensitive side. And, as such, the album harkens back to the work of many headstrong black men wielding guitars and/or a jones for polished, overstuffed compositions, from Curtis Mayfield to Cody Chesnutt. Williams's voice can't carry an entire album, and the ability to generate platinum hooks doesn't equal proficiency at verse-chorus-verse.

Mixed in with dick-centric braggadocio like the rumbling, deftly syncopated "She Wants to Move" are a handful of songs riding a loose concept about troubled adolescence. Considering that Williams and Hugo grew up as savvy kids absorbing everything from Steely Dan to Dolly Parton in racially diverse Virginia Beach, it's too bad Williams's lyrics rarely rise above the clichéd hardships of teen-drama flicks: The title cut mentions bad grades, a shrink, a "dumb ass girlfriend," and whipping someone's ass; and Good Charlotte teen-drama kings Benji and Joel Madden help out on a light, piano-driven rant.

Fly or Die doesn't exactly open up amazingly unfamiliar vistas for rock-rap-whatever explorations. But at least the heavy-footed funk in "Thrasher" and the sly, slinky riffage of "Backseat Love" show they're trying new shit. Money and options: good things to have, whether you're customizing a Benz or concocting the forward-thinking jams that'll pour from its stereo.

 
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