Notes: “Party People (feat. T.I.)” is a solid opening with a sound more reminiscent of The Neptunes than N.E.R.D., though the sound that keeps coming to mind is The Chemical Brothers, or maybe Q-Tip. No accusations here, just a comparison, but Pharrell does admire both and he’s talented enough I’ll consider it a hat-tip. “Hypnotize U” has tons of club bass, floor toms and synthesizers, unique from anything I’ve heard from them in the past but it’s not really landing with me, can’t put my finger on why. “Help Me” has that offbeat N.E.R.D. sound that intrigued me years ago, more thoughtful lyrics than the first two tracks that had me fearing Pharrell had further devolved into the “Cars, Money, Hoes” theme that pervades hip-hop on the radio. “Help Me” really is catchy, interesting choice of instruments and the arrangement breaks the mold. Solid on all levels. “Victory” has Pharrell backing himself in 3-part harmony over handclaps and overdriven bass guitar. The bridge is genuinely impressive and shows the most focus on vocal harmony I think I’ve ever heard in a N.E.R.D. song. Interesting take on what’s intended as an inspirational song. “Perfect Defect” has catchy hooks throughout, a slick funk bass line follows nicely syncopated vocals and a horn section, honestly there’s more going on in the song than I’m able to determine in one listening, lots of instruments dropping in and out, an arrangement that blurs the lines between verse, chorus and bridge. Really impressed with it. “I’ve Seen The Light” Starts out sounding like Pharrell’s about to wax poetic about some sailors a few hundred years ago, but the chorus has that Neptunes sound that is often imitated, rarely duplicated. “Inside of Clouds” picks up right at the end of “I’ve Seen The Light” and is about 85 seconds of peaceful flute, guitar and xylophone building up to a big airy chorus that lasts about 10 seconds, and makes you wish for more. “God Bless Us All” goes back to club bass and snares, a somber message in a minor scale, and mariachi-style horns. Hopeful ghetto blues? It’s an interesting sound and done fairly well. “Life As A Fish” has a choir backing Pharrell who sings, in his usual upbeat way, about evolution. I do get a laugh out of his lyrics every now and then, and I think he likes that. Sampled splashes and big explosions over a light but slightly chiding message tell me to lighten up a bit as we proceed. “Nothing On You” moves into more standard hip-hop, though Pharrell uses clean, 7th or 8th-fret electric guitar barre chords in the chorus. Not a lot to say on it, it’s not bad but there have been some highlights on the album and this one’s not one. “Hot-n-fun” features Nelly Furtado, the sound is an industrial club sort of sound, overdriven reverb bass and electronica-inspired arpeggiated synth. Furtado’s bridge-chorus thing is great and really focuses an otherwise loose track. “It’s In The Air” opens with a great sample of Sen. Patrick Kennedy’s rant during a debate over the war in Afghanistan and then moves into a really nice downtempo track with elements of blues, early rap, country-western and jazz. It’s a hard track not to like, and Williams ties together sounds in a way that really does him credit as an evolving musician. “Sacred Temple” starts out sounding dangerously like the previous track but brings in a ’90s house sound and a chorus full of drums, horns, and guitars that I can only call it a very N.E.R.D. sounding chorus, the sheer energy of the song saves it. “I Wanna Jam” has a great rap-rock feel, subtle synthesizers follow electric guitars to cover a very catchy scale. Again, loads of energy in this song and the vocal performance is as solid as the instrumental. “The Man” is a tom-laden with a nod to “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”. Really having trouble categorizing the song, not a bad thing in itself but even by N.E.R.D. standards the song feels roughed-in, more a sketch than a song and a weak ending to an otherwise solid album.
Tone and Overall Sound: 16/20 Points. While some people would score this section lower, they would also be people that haven’t listened to previous work by the band. What’s interesting to me is that as time’s gone on N.E.R.D. has moved further from a rock band and into areas that could’ve had The Neptunes slapped on it and nobody would raise an eyebrow, in particular the club offerings. Still, innovation and originality push this category up about 4 points.
Melody and Harmony: 20/20 Points. Even on tracks where I don’t agree with certain choices, they’re almost always done with such polish and finesse that you know you’re listening to a true pro. This felt like a more experimental work than previous albums, and while there were one or two instances where I wasn’t going for it, when the melody and harmony shined they were really something to hear, and I can’t give it less than full marks.
Rhythmic Qualities: 16/20 Points. Syncopation saves the score here, N.E.R.D. goes beyond 4/4 rock in favor of subtle syncopation and does it without the listener feeling lost. The only occasional confusion is trying to discern verse, bridge and chorus from each other, but it’s both not a bad thing and something they’ve done for quite a long time. Maybe a bit too much reliance on the club drumkit and bass in the front of the soundstage.
Mixing and Production: 20/20 Points. I wavered for a bit on 16 or 20 and decided to give full marks for having the album as a whole flow well from track to track, along with the attention to detail in sampling, panning, dynamics, arpeggios and sliced samples that almost always improved the song as a whole, and that’s the bulk of the points in this category.
Theme and Concept: 4/10 Points. When Pharrell is on-point he can really put down some lyrics that makes you stop and reflect. That wasn’t the case for all but a few tracks. The core of the album, from tracks 3 to 8 are the high point in my opinion, and given the amount of talent in hip-hop right now they’re pretty still weak. It’s not their strong suit, and it never really has been, but there are a few flashes of talent.
Presentation: 10/10 Points. The more I considered the artwork the more I liked it. Pharrell in profile, wearing a camo soldier’s helmet (war) with three feathers (peace) on the side, red, white and blue, all against a white backdrop with drop-shadow. Colorful, symbolic and largely open to interpretation, much like the band itself. Simple and well-done.
Total: 86/100 Points. I may still prefer their “Fly Or Die” album but I suspect that’s nostalgia talking, this is by far their most diverse work, and it’s remarkably solid given the number of genres Williams and the band tackle. Personally I’d like to see more of a focus on lyrics to go with the vocal harmonies, but honestly it’s never really been their thing. That said, the album is absolutely worth a listen, and probably more than one because there’s a lot to take in. Will it chart as well as their last two? Maybe, maybe not, but that shouldn’t stop you from listening to the evolution of a genuinely talented group.