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N.E.R.D. (Buy CDs by this artist)
In Search Of ... (Virgin) 2002

Not since the 1980s heyday of Prince and the Revolution had anyone made a funk-rock record as catchy, strange, filthy and exhilarating as In Search Of ... The album's creators, Virginia Beach studio rats Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, are better known as the high-priced rap-pop production team the Neptunes. While their work for acts such as Nelly, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake is firmly commercial and readily accessible, Williams and Hugo cut a more idiosyncratic path on In Search Of ....

The Neptunes first made their name in the late-'90s with a run of party-themed hits for Ol' Dirty Bastard ("Got My Money"), Mystikal ("Shake Ya Ass") and Jay-Z ("I Just Wanna Love You"). Neptunes productions were distinguished by propulsive, syncopated rhythms, Williams' amateurish falsetto crooning in the hook and old school R&B melodies in the vein of Stevie Wonder and Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson. Quickly ascending to the ranks of hip-hop's best musicmakers, they rivaled the likes of Timbaland and even Dr. Dre. Soon pop stars looking for street cred came calling, and the Neptunes enthusiastically lent their talents (for a fee) to Britney Spears ("I'm a Slave 4 U"), Justin Timberlake ("Rock Your Body") and Usher ("U Don't Have to Call"). To their credit, these collaborations didn't sully the Neptunes' standing in the rap world, as artists from Nelly ("Hot in Herre") to Busta Rhymes ("Pass the Courvoisier") to Snoop Dogg ("Beautiful") lined up to work with them in spite (or because) of their pop success.

After having their names on so many hits, it was only a matter of time before Williams and Hugo made a record of their own, using the leftovers their superstar clients deemed too "out there" for them. But completing In Search Of ... proved to be far tougher than any the Neptunes planned. It was originally slated to be released in July 2001, but just as the record was being shipped to stores in Europe and music magazines in America, the mercurial twosome decided to cancel the release and re-record the songs with a live rock band.

The re-tooled In Search Of ... didn't appear until the following spring, and its raw and sloppy sound alienated some of the Neptunes' staunch hip-hop fans. Nevertheless, the move proved to be the right one. While white acts had been combining rap with rock for years, N.E.R.D. was one of the first black acts to do it since the late 1980s. Unlike Limp Bizkit and Korn, N.E.R.D.'s rap rock brought out the best of each genre (the former's funky kick and the latter's visceral thrill) rather than the worst (mindless misogyny and mindless nihilism, respectively). Most of the songs, unsurprisingly, are about sex, but refreshing in their lack of braggadocio. Much of the bump and grind action is almost cerebral, though not nearly as dull as that might suggest. N.E.R.D. tackle sex orally ("Brain"), voyeuristically ("Tape You"), even metaphorically (the political rant "Lap Dance"). Radio in the early '00s might be a dark place, but with the Neptunes producing scads of hits and recording as N.E.R.D., it's not as bad as it might be.

[Steve Hyden]