In Search Of

hip hop stands as one of the most important influences on current pop music. In the few short years since it became a legitimate musical form in the eyes of white audiences (thanks Lauryn Hill!), hip hop has dominated the musical landscape, and changed pop music drastically. Now metal-heads rap over their blustering guitars, boy bands harmonize over break beats, and high-schoolers are trading in their Fenders for Technics. But perhaps the most profound effect hip hop has had is shining a light on producers. Producers used to be the overlooked bunch of gearheads toiling away at guitar levels and fade-outs and other such periphery, while the songwriter did the actual creative work and the band did the technical stuff. But hip hop relies on deft looping and sampling combined with complementary rapping to work – you don’t even need to write a song.

The public was infatuated with the MCs at first – the equivalent to a rock band’s photogenic lead singer – but inevitably people want to know what’s going into the actual music. It helps that hip hop has continually expanded from a sample-based format, which kept people looking at the sampled sources. Furthermore, the current dearth of skilled MCs (R.I.P. Tupac and Biggie) firmly shifted focus on to the beats. The 21st century granted America its first producer-pop-stars: Timbaland and the Neptunes. Their distinctive beats made instant hits, regardless of what name was attached to them (Missy Elliot, Aaliyah, and Bubba Sparxxx with the former; Mystikal, Noreaga, and finally, Britney Spears and N’Sync with the latter).

Timbaland plants himself firmly in the realm of hip hop, and his solo albums and collaborations support this. But the Neptunes have bigger goals. Chad Hugh and Pharrell Williams have worked their way up from Puff Daddy lackeys all the way to the driving force behind the most recognizable faces in pop. Thus it comes as no surprise that the unavoidable Neptunes solo album runs a gamut of musical styles. The big surprise is how undeniably good the album is. Great, in fact. In Search Of..., released under the moniker N.E.R.D. (No one Ever Really Dies), isn’t even a hip hop album at all. It’s a tightly programmed concept album, conceived on a steady diet of Thriller, heartbreak, and cocaine.

In Search Of... isn’t just an album about cocaine: it’s practically cocaine itself. It’s gaudy, exciting, shallow, and incredibly addictive. Gaudy for flaunting its bevy of musical styles (even though it pulls everything off flawlessly). Exciting because it effortlessly repackages ‘80s disco-funk-cheese into something not only palatable, but desirable. Shallow because the music is totally corrupt and dishonest: the cheap keyboard effects perfectly match Pharrell’s empty pleas and apologies. And finally, addictive because that’s what the Neptunes do best: they hook you and keep you coming back for more. In fact, the album is actually rather unsatisfying in retrospect – joy can only be derived from actually listening to it. It reigns only in the present – the perfect pop music for our disposable age.

The true masters of pop that they are, Pharrell and Chad put the single on the first track, “Lapdance,” a violent ode to low-budget decadence. The buzz-saw synths that open the song are unmistakably Neptunes, but the big surprise comes from the percussion: it’s live. The Neptunes re-recorded In Search Of..., replacing synth drums and guitars with the real thing. It’s a departure from their style, but works well: the drums flesh out the bottom end of the songs, and the live guitars are infinitely more evocative than their replicated counterparts.

In Search Of... switches gears (it does this a lot, paralleling the highs and lows of steady coke use), with the light and funky “Things Are Getting Better.” Here’s where the lyrical genius of Pharrell really shines through: he’s lying throughout much of the album. The lyrics aren’t really innovative by themselves – they’re mostly trite clichés. But that’s why they work: Pharrell doesn’t mean anything. He’s just parroting empty maxims to please his lover, who is about to walk out on him. “Things are really getting better,” he croons. “We’ll see the light.” But this album has only just begun, and we haven’t yet plumbed the depths of the Neptunes’ coked-out odyssey.

“Brain” is a catchy, stuttery song, featuring a vocal glissando almost identical to Britney Spears’ similarly-debauched “I’m a Slave 4 U” (another Neptunes production). “Brain” evokes a detached paranoia, before descending into nonsense. “Do you really want to hurt me? If you do there is no pain. Do I really even love you? Or do I just love your bra-a-a-ain?” Pharrell is all apologies again with the bluesy “Provider,” offering up excuse after excuse for his lifestyle. A cheery bossa-nova bridge implies that Pharrell may be conjuring up other emotions besides the blues while he recalls the previous night’s insanity.

“Truth or Dare” and “Tape You” pull the album into darkness. The former is a duet between Pharrell and Kelis (of “Baby I Got Your Money” fame). Kelis is one of the few collaborators on the album that actually fits in (the few raps throughout the album are less than inspired), her detached, detuned singing style makes her the perfect coke-muse. “Tape You” is an R&B plea, but not for simple sexual favors – Pharrell wants this girl on video.

“Run to the Sun” is the obvious centerpiece to In Search Of.... Smooth keyboard tinkling sets the stage for twangy funk guitar and bass. It’s another apology song (ostensibly apologizing for the perversions of the previous two tracks). “I love you,” Pharrell sings, “And I wish we could run to the sun.” “Wish” is the crucial word in that statement. He’s not even lying here, but he’s certainly misleading his love. But damn it if he isn’t good at it.

“Baby Doll” patches together a surf-rock beat with some unearthly synths, turning it into a frenetic love song. It’s a last ditch effort to keep his woman, and ultimately ineffective. “Please don’t go,” Pharrell sings, but he’s too hopped up to be sincere. “Am I High” displays the outcome: a tortured drug-addled ballad with some Elton John-style piano. Pharrell is still on drugs, but they can’t heal his pain, and the backing vocals of the chorus are suitably melodramatic.

Depression switches to anger in “Rock Star,” which attempts restraint before blasting into pummeling drums and guitars. Pharrell’s singing sounds very similar to the Deftones’ Chino Moreno, which will further fuel nu-metal accusations (A note: genre classifications are never a basis for music criticism). The lyrics admonish a “poseur” living the rock star life, but gradually evolve into a sort of twisted warning: “It’s almost over now, it’s almost over now.” “Bobby James” is a ballad of an outcast who copes with his social dysfunctions with drugs, building to a positively lush chorus. A bossa nova outro again recalls the short-term bliss of the high.

In Search Of... closes with “Stay Together,” another plaintive plea for reconciliation. The tweaked synth oboes sound like some sort of warped Beatles homage. Pharrell positively wails, “We gotta stay together girl. It might just work.” Another empty promise; this time his desperation is obvious.

Thus concludes the fantastic voyage of the Neptunes. The cocaine metaphor works incredibly well – the ups and downs of Pharrell’s relationship mirror the ups and downs of cocaine highs, and are perfectly realized musically in the album. Music and message are rarely matched as well as on In Search Of... (Radiohead’s OK Computer comes to mind). The Neptunes prove that not only can they strike out on their own; they can utterly blow away their peers. The singing is flawless (always hinted in the Neptunes' productions, which often feature Pharrell on the hook), the beats are infectious, and the album displays the duo’s range of talent. In Search Of... paves the way for a bold future: all hail the age of the producer.

Reviewed by: Gavin Mueller
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01
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