A couple of years back, when the Neptunes -- introvert Chad Hugo and extrovert Pharrell Williams -- popped out from behind the control boards to step front and center as musical outfit N.E.R.D., their most engaging attribute was their stubborn refusal to be defined. Their debut, In Search Of , was its own alternative radio station, one that covered all the genres -- a little hard rock right there, a little hip-hop over there, a touch of funk and smidgen of R&B -- in 12 digestible, addictive tracks.
As the title implied, Search found N.E.R.D. seeking their niche. And with their second album, Fly or Die, it's still not fully evident who they are, but it's plain as day who they want to be: the best SoCal punk band you've ever heard.
Hugo, Williams and hype man Shay emulate the Golden State's nuttiest musical provocateurs: They've openly admitted that the guitar-grinding "Backseat Love" is a nod to Frank Zappa, and the tune does exude a smart-ass irony the mother of all Mothers of Invention would've dug. Meanwhile, the album finale, "Chariot of Fire," is a blatant homage to the beach-bum psychedelic rock of Jane's Addiction, so much so that I wouldn't be surprised if the Neptunes ended up producing most of their next album.
N.E.R.D. wants it known that they're doing all of this for the youth of America, that the optimistic yet skeptical mall-rock anthems on Fly are for all the disillusioned boys and girls out there. "This is definitely for the kids," Williams yells at the beginning of the bouncy title track. And he's right, much of Fly should appeal to the kids -- but only those of the white suburban variety, as Williams's lyrics find him calling out to more middle-class sk8ter bois than Avril Lavigne. The title track, "Jump" (a collaboration with Good Charlotte's Madden twins), "Breakout" and the cheery, I'm-not-going-to-war ode "Drill Sergeant" all find him urging fresh-faced outcasts to embrace their individuality and not go off the deep end. As Williams notes in "Breakout," "I know how you feel / And I do care." It all makes you wonder if Williams has created a new type of pop performer: the rock-star guidance counselor.
A critic or two has labeled Fly a mess, but it's actually their more cohesive album. It was In Search Of that was a mess -- a magnificent mess, if you ask me. Hugo and Williams melded rap, rock, funk and R&B all in one album; not one listener was left out of the loop. On the other hand, with its steady stream of punk angst, Fly has a closed-off feel. It's as if it were designed to exclude the other groups of fans N.E.R.D.'s first album attracted.
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Fly or Die is a listenable, even energetic effort, but I wish the guys didn't rope off the mosh pit for just the misunderstood slacker youths. There are some ghetto kids who need to blow off some steam too -- and listening to Lil' Jon just ain't cutting it anymore.