N*E*R*D cult followers understand that once Pharrell, Chad and Shay hole up in the studio to make magic, anything can happen. While the trio has earned the Hip Hop stamp of approval during their near-decade tenure as a group, they aren’t necessary Hip Hop per se. Nothing furthers this evidence, with genre-twisting tracks that offer what N*E*R*D has been known to deliver: a new outlook on music.
The four-year break in between 2004’s Fly Or Die and 2008’s Seeing Sounds had a huge impact on the direction of N*E*R*D’s music. By 2008, Pharrell had become a cultural and fashion icon, Chad was labeled the genius behind The Neptunes, and Shay filled in the gaps with his Beatles-crazed take on Rap. When Seeing Sounds dropped, it was soaked in sounds that reflected the bright fashion of Pharrell, adopting synesthesia, which is the actual condition of “seeing sounds”. The work was loud, wild, and rambunctious and reflected an electro-punk flair that the group meddled with in the past but perfected by that very moment. Nothing takes on more of a Rap Psychadelic approach, a combination of Woodstock and Hoodshock.
Nothing opens with the Disco-meets-New Wave “Party People” , the only track of its kind on the album. T.I. manages to keep up with the pace of the cut by speeding up his rhyming in a cadence similar to fellow ATL-ien Big Boi. “Hypnotize U” follows with Pharrell doing his usual coos and sneaky whisper rhymes. When N*E*R*D announced last year that they were inviting B-level R&B songstress Rhea into the fold, it was for Pharrell to take a step back on the singing. She was dropped before Nothing finished, and is therefore nowhere to be found on the work. While reviving the career of a near-retired singer posed beneficial to a group like Black Eyed Peas, leaving P on the vocals was a smart choice for N*E*R*D.
The middle of Nothing is a mesh of ’70s-inspired cuts that are psychotropically mellowed by Pharrell’s smooth vocals, with hints of Rock and scattered political undertones. It sounds all very Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds-inspired up until “Perfect Defect” which has a hint of Hall & Oates. Then the album zooms into party mode, with the signature sounding “Nothing On You” and the pleasantly sleazy “Hot-n-Fun” with Nelly Furtado. It switches gears once again by “I Wanna Jam”, which sounds like guitar riffs from The Clash’s “London Calling” were chopped up and swirled around the cut. “The Man” closes Nothing, with a very traditional Neptunes beat, reminding of the versatility this group possesses.
Hip Hop heads may scoff at Nothing, considering the only thing rap about it are the strategically placed rhymes on certain tracks. Like The Roots‘ Phrenology, the experimentation will either be revered or cursed depending upon the listener. While Nothing is arguably N*E*R*D’s best musical work to date, it has pushed the group into a new dimension, far far away from its Hip Hop beginnings.