N.E.R.D. Send Mixed Messages

N.E.R.D. -- "Nothing" -- Interscope -- 1.5 STARS

COURTESY INTERSCOPE

N.E.R.D.’s latest release, “Nothing,” is interspersed with moments of politically salient commentary and laughably overt sexuality. Though the album’s variety could have made “Nothing” more interesting, N.E.R.D. make a clumsy transition between these two poles. Neither musically nor lyrically inspiring, “Nothing” even fails to be a collection of dance-worthy hip-hop tracks. Though the album has some interesting political commentary, it is not enough to salvage the album from its poorly executed anatomy.

The most egregious failure of “Nothing” is its lack of cohesion. It does not have even the slightest hint of unity that turns a collection of songs into an album. “Nothing” begins energetically with “Party People,” a song with a punchy bass line and a simple beat that back the vocals. The song itself is one of the more successful of the album—it is a cross between funk and hip hop, and the combination of the right instruments and hooks over the danceable tempo makes this track stand out from the rest of the album. This falsely promising energy dissipates with the second song, and the album never recovers its vigor. There is no suggestion of an identifiable flow in the album, as it has no buildup or climax.

The album not only lacks direction, but also presents a variety of styles which—rather than adding to the album—reduces “Nothing” to sounding careless and unfocused. The album jumps illogically between genres like dance, rock, funk, and old-school hip hop. The tracks all have a hip-hop undertone, but it is not enough to hold together the distracted album. The sheer range of styles also contributes to N.E.R.D.’s cursory treatment of each of these genres. The album is stretched too thin, and fails to function as a powerful, or even marginally effective unit.

However, some of the individual songs are successful. Its third song, “Help Me,” is surprisingly politically relevant with lyrics like “See those war machines out there / Are black with your karma do you care? / Just know karma doesn’t stop if you cry.” In the context of the song’s chorus (“No, I won’t kill you, but I’ll watch you die”) and the album’s eleventh track, “It’s in the Air”—which begins with Patrick Kennedy ranting about the press and the war in Afghanistan while drawing attention to “laying of lives down in the nation for the service of our country”—“Help Me” is an interesting commentary on the War on Terror with just the right amount of bitterness.

Unfortunately, the gravity of some of these politically relevant tracks is quickly made trifling due to N.E.R.D.’s indulgence of mainstream hip hop’s and rap’s preoccupation with sex. The second track, “Hypnotize U,” is soothing, with falsetto vocals reminiscent of Justin Timberlake’s “My Love,” until it is cut short by the singer whispering “Touch a girl / Touch a girl / Touch a girl, uh” over and over again. The lyrics of “Perfect Defect” are similarly sexual: “Oh, come on, cheer up baby / You know I make you laugh / Meet Tina, Tanya, Tracy / We’re having a bubble bath.” While acceptable in mainstream hip hop and rap, this overt pull toward sex is out of place in an album that doesn’t quite boast club dance music but tries instead to be politically relevant and critical of society.

Looking beyond the album’s cohesion and the songs’ lyrical and thematic elements, the album still offers nothing profound. The songs are repetitive and lack buildup, release, or any other noticeable dynamic action. Even “Help Me,” which has pertinent lyrics, is held back by the droning guitars and the monotonous shift between its two parts. While many rap and hip-hop songs rely on repetition of catchy beats, the album fails in this regard as well, as it doesn’t have enough hooks to hold its own.

As a unit of songs that make up a whole album, “Nothing” can only be described as a failure. It is not cohesive with regards to theme, style, or tempo, and though a few of the tracks give thought provoking political commentary, the rest are not engaging musically or lyrically. While N.E.R.D.’s interest in politics is admirable, it’s difficult to take their opinions seriously when they are scattered among lyrics like “Life makes me horny.”

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