Pharrell Williams doesn’t shout. Today, the co-producer of Jay-Z and Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake and No Doubt (and others) is sort of urgently whispering on the phone about N.E.R.D., the restless trio he fronts with Chad Hugo, his production partner in the Neptunes, along with a friend, one Shay. Fly or Die, N.E.R.D.’s follow-up to 2002’s In Search Of . . . debut, has been out a few weeks, the band is on a national tour, and Williams this afternoon is going from appointment to appointment somewhere in Minneapolis. But right now he kicks back a bit and rhapsodizes about ’60s jazz — saxophonist Gary Bartz, and that old rabble-rouser Gil Scott-Heron in particular. “I’m always a little funny talking about it,” Williams, 31, says. “Because I know that people might listen to it and go, ‘What?’ The messages, well, this is a different day and age. But the music? Sheesh.”
Williams’ band — whose acronym stands for No One Ever Really Dies, a slogan indicative of the N.E.R.D. mix of wild imagination and ambition — represents a mission for him. “I don’t know what kind of music this is,” the Virginia Beach native says, initially sounding casual about a topic that engrosses him. “I know what I think it can do. I’m trying to get people to a place where they can stop judging what it is, and judge whether they like it or not. That’s why I did songs like ‘Grindin’’ for the Clipse.” He’s referring to a record the Neptunes produced for the duo, also from Virginia — a hit that turned heads and caught ears. “It wasn’t considered typical hip-hop at the moment,” he explains, “but shit, we showed you with the video exactly what to do with it, you know what I’m saying? What to do with it and how to feel about it. ‘Grindin’’ made the nerdiest nerds feel fucking grounded and hard. It had personality.”
Williams’ music hardly lacks personality. He and Hugo have produced the brightest, hungriest, killingest tracks since Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis emerged from Prince’s band as independent studio auteurs during the ’80s. But where Jam-Lewis reconfigure soul and gospel and current club styles into recordings as elegant as Janet Jackson’s latest photo shoot, the Neptunes craft tracks for a post-slick America obsessed with stories and noise and getting laid and conformity and, now, Iraq. In a marketplace increasingly determined to give people what they already know they want instead of what they cannot imagine they need, he and Hugo offer, as Williams puts it, “these ideas harvested in Virginia.”
“That’s my job,” Williams says. For him, hip-hop still exists in 1993’s creative wonderland, a field limited only by the dreams and ingenuity of its creators. “It’s not always successful, and it’s not always the biggest thing in the world. Most of the time it works. I want to push people to hear other things; I want them to hear what I hear. It’s kinda hard. You feel like you’re grabbing people by the wrist and, like, pulling.”
Fly or Die is a top-shelf album, fancy as all hell and equally down-to-earth, an album that will recast a story from church testimony into bracingly modern music. It is played mostly live, and is more guitar-oriented and less dance-driven than In Search Of. Where N.E.R.D. on their debut loved to see how many unexpected ideas they could streamline into jams as fantastic as “Lapdance,” N.E.R.D.’s latest plays it straighter, in some ways. But the writing goes in the opposite direction.
“For the most part,” Williams says, “this is organic music,” citing a quality to which everyone from the Roots to Jessica Simpson now aspires. “It’s live, and it’s a good, warm feeling. The chord changes I chose were a little more emotional than a lot of music that gets played on distorted guitars. That’s not to say that my music is better or worse; I’m just saying that it’s really emotionally driven, what you get out of it, the feeling of it, just the nature of the chords. They’re not the A, C, G that you hear a lot these days.”
Williams didn’t become one of pop’s most successful producers, however, because he misunderstands unoriginality. “A lot of people,” he quickly says, “who use those familiar chords, they have them sounding incredible, because they manage to make you feel different things every time. But I felt like I would veer off and go into another world where it’s just like . . . a lot of colors, you know what I mean?”
Consider “Don’t Worry About It,” the album’s opener, a song about romantic torture sung by someone keenly aware that, as Williams sings, “There’s a war going on” unconnected to sex. Ignoring 10,000 years of rock and rock-soul conventions from the Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin to Jet, N.E.R.D. have their chords hitting their beats, bar to uncompromising bar, as cleanly and evenly and simultaneously as the most coached young pianist drilled in right- and left-hand synchronicity. This ensemble uniformity creates an altogether different rhythmic aura over which Williams can sing in his now full, now stringy, occasionally falsettoized tenor, over which showy guitars and basses can erect themselves comfortably in space. When Williams breaks everything down, singing that people tell him, “Damn, Pharrell, you have a cold heart,” but demonstrating how the girl in the song has torn him up, N.E.R.D. zoom off to emotional places all their own.
“She Wants To Move,” where N.E.R.D. take their expert instrumental attack to the moon, is as impressive. The whole track rises up from a brutal restyled South American drum pattern that never backs off; every chord, every vocal, every percussive accent, every rangy guitar solo falls directly on the rhythmic foundation. As with the efflorescent “Maybe” and the strange and lovely “Wonderful Place,” N.E.R.D. carve out places to do occasionally eccentric countervailing hip-hop vocal stunts and Beatlesque harmonics, but these are just mini-breathers; “She Wants To Move” is a rocker, reinvented N.E.R.D.-style. In general, the highly unusual ensemble coherency allows all of N.E.R.D.’s recombinations to seem unborrowed.
Of course, restaging styles has long been a Williams signature. “I would always switch that up,” he says. “When they called us hip-hop, I went and did a record with Gwen [Stefani, of No Doubt] and those guys. Even before then, I said that we were on our way to the pop world, and I worked with Britney [Spears] and did the Justin [Timberlake] stuff. And the Justin record was to do the reverse. It was, yeah, I know he’s pop, but I think that this kid has, like, an R&B credibility that’s just undeniable, just give me a second and I’ll show you exactly what I mean. And, you know, people were patient. I think he’s got a good album.”
Asked if negotiating different styles can be dizzying, Williams answers with a long Virginian “Naaahhh.” They’re just different planes of expression, he says. “I liken that to how you are to your girlfriend, but at the same time to your mother and father, and at the same time to your boss. You’re the same guy, but the character that you represent to your girl or your wife is one guy, but at the same time still at the heart and core of the same person you are. These are different sides of your main character. Each of the different sides has a range of conversation that you have. It’s an unlimited vocabulary, but context pretty much narrows things down. That’s what it’s like being a beatmaker, a guy who sings and makes music in N.E.R.D., and a guy who wants to be the young Marco Polo of the world.”
Williams falls to talking, softly, about his sneaker line. It’s called Ice Cream, he says. “When people look at my sneakers, you would never figure that I’d made a beat in my life. If you listen to N.E.R.D., you aren’t going to think, ‘Oh, those are the Neptunes.’ And if you do, it’s only because you know me from doing all kinds of shit. That’s the only reason why, because you know I do all kinds of things. But if you didn’t know, and you went, ‘That’s the guy who did Nelly’s ‘Hot in Herre’ to someone, he’d go, ‘Bullshit.’ And that’s the beauty.”