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312: Harry Connick Jr.
311: Sonny Rollins
310: Speech
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by Dan Grunebaum

N.E.R.D.
Left to right: Chad Hugo, Shay and Pharrell Williams

With the Pharcyde and the Roots just through Tokyo, this spring is turning into a veritable cornucopia of alternative hip-hop. N.E.R.D., the band formed by the Neptunes production duo, represents the latest and perhaps most influential among the hip-hop outfits currently giving commercially dominant acts like Jay-Z and Ja Rule a run for their money.

Like the Roots, N.E.R.D. are that rarity in contemporary hip-hop: a live instrumental band that forgoes turntables for traditional bass, drums and guitar instrumentation in its stage show. But N.E.R.D., which consists of the Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo along with additional member, rapper Shay, in fact recorded last year’s debut album In Search Of (Virgin) with synthetic beats and even went so far as to release the album in Europe before scrapping it and re-recording it with a live band for its worldwide release.

The result was one of last year’s most talked about albums. With production credits for everyone from Mystikal to Jay-Z to Britney Spears and Limp Bizkit, a Neptunes solo release would likely have met with success no matter what it sounded like. But when African-American Williams and Filipino-American Hugo replaced the machine beats with live drums‘n’bass, guitars and keyboards, the outcome was an album that transcended hip-hop altogether.

Captivating tracks like “Provider,” about a dead-end drug dealer, not only position Williams front and center as charismatic singer/frontman, but also put forward a fusion of rock and hip-hop entirely different from the dominant rap-rock model. Where million-sellers Linkin’ Park and Limp Bizkit et. al. are all about white, teenage suburban aggression, N.E.R.D. (No one Ever Really Dies) are soft, seductive old school jazz and funk riffs that would rather seduce you than demand obedience.

The aggression is there; it’s just sublimated. “Lapdance,” for instance, equates politicians with strippers, while “Rockstar-Poser” is a dig at preening rock stars. “In Search Of” seems like a bland title, but for us it’s in search of love. In search of happiness. In search of happiness. In search of smiling. In search of that bitch with the big ass. In search of the answer to why my brother smokes crack,” N.E.R.D. say on their website.

But there’s also a certain amount of vulnerability. Williams is not a singer equipped with a strong pair of lungs, and lacks the smoothness of most contemporary R&B singers. The understated effect is just right for “Bobby James,” in which he assumes the role of a high school runt who escapes into drugs and dreams of retribution.

Ever since Run DMC hooked up with Aerosmith for “Walk This Way,” there’s been a confluence between rap and rock. N.E.R.D. point toward a new fusion, but also mine a rich musical vein that runs from psychedelic soul figures Sly & the Family Stone to Parliament/Funkadelic and later black rock outfits such as Living Color. This musical stream has long struck a chord in Japan and can be heard in the loose feel of current Japanese hip-hop groups like Rip Slyme.

N.E.R.D. play Studio Coast on April 30 and May 1. See listings for details.

Courtesy of Three Vases

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