Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D. Photos by Lorraine Inije
During N.E.R.D.’s performance Tuesday at the Verizon Theater, Pharrell Williams stopped the music to pander to the crowd. Pharrell, one-half of production force the Neptunes when he’s not fronting this three-piece side project, has made his considerable riches largely by conforming just enough to be accepted while coloring outside the lines in ways to be sufficiently avant-garde and spoke the language of the outcast. “We’re happy to be here to celebrate difference,” he said, drawing lines between “us” and “them.”
It’s an interesting schtick, because Pharrell is all young-boy charm and his allegiances –to streetwear, Japanese designers, geek culture and other less-glorified roads – has always come across as genuine. Even his dedication to N.E.R.D. is a left turn. The band, consisting of other Neptune Chad Hugo (a no-show; he has a reputation for being a family man and a studio rat) and Shae Haley, has never quite struck its stride or fulfilled its potential. It’s entirely plausible that the Neptunes could make more money by selling a single music track to Madonna than N.E.R.D. has made off of three albums.
Still, Pharrell is pushing the brand ferociously, all but putting the Neptunes in a box while he traipses the country for months. The only thing is, N.E.R.D. works better as a concept than an executed reality. Onstage, Pharrell is too controlled and too vain to ever give himself over the rock-star abandon he attempts to channel.
He’s way too cerebral to be truly reckless – his marching band-like stomps never give in to artistic messiness; even when the band pulls up some two dozen women up on the stage for closing numbers “Lap Dance, ” “Everybody Nose” and “She Wants to Move” (complete with a “Seven Nation Army” bass riff) it’s more like drill-team practice than anything that aspires to sublime anarchy.
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Likewise, the show’s headliner, Common (above), presents his show as an idea that never quite completes itself. It’s “The Cooler,” a bar where Common takes a stool, orders a drink and chats up ladies in between songs. In theory it works because Common, who’s traveled from underground underdog to conscious-rap sacred cow (with a stopover as an Erykah Badu punchline), has relied on Kanye West for the production of his most recent and most critically acclaimed albums. In turn, West has given him bouncy female-centric songs like “Go,” “Testify” and “Drivin’ Me Wild” around which to fit his narrative.
But, as with N.E.R.D., Common never transcends his moment, though both acts’ backing bands bring life and nuance to their source material. And Common’s crew gets extra points for tossing in snippets of crowd pleasing numbers – Busta Rhyme’s “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,” Black Sheep’s “This or That,” the bassline from Marley Marl’s “The Symphony.”
Yet as main attraction, Common, despite working up a healthy sweat before ending his first number, is too perfunctory; down to his premeditated encore and a freestyle session where he rhymes “Houston” with “boostin’.” Yeah.
At this point, Common is more adored for what he represents than what he produces; he’s living on his legacy but determined to market his relevance. For a closing number, Pharrell appears onstage and the two perform “Gladiator,” an unreleased single from Common’s still-delayed eighth album, Invincible Summer. “Are you not entertained?” the song asks. Actually, we are - we just want more. - Kris Ex