In their own lengthy careers, Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo, and Shad Haley have received massive respect, especially the former, but almost none of that praise has extended from their work as N.E.R.D. Sporadically over the years, particularly during the mid-2000’s, N.E.R.D. records functioned as Pharrell’s digital sandbox: a place where he could safely deposit all of his most ridiculous and borderline excruciating songs that would never have been offered to A-list rappers such as Clipse or Jay-Z.
The same happens here on their first album together in nine years, No One Ever Really Dies, as the group churns out some of the most unlistenable protest songs around, such as “100 (feat. Future).” It’s Pharrell completely unchecked, and while it successfully imitates the chaos that he described helped inspire him to make the record, it’s clear that the focus is still more on making experimental pop music.
It’s the reason the first single “Lemon” featured Rihanna, and that the record contains not just one but two Kendrick Lamar verses. They know we’ll listen to anything with Rihanna on it, and other guests such as Gucci Mane, Wale, Future, André 3000, and Ed Sheeran stack the project as well. What else could have gotten us to listen to Pharrell call us “Branded-cattle” over pseudo-political jazzercise? It might be as amazingly bouncy and fun as we expect Pharrell Williams’ production to be, but the relentless shouting and seemingly random experimental choices within the music doesn’t make No One Ever Really Dies an enjoyable listen throughout.
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