There are many lessons that come from age and experience, and when one discovers such a thing, one is compelled to broadcast it to the world. This is that. Sometimes those declarations sound like the cantankerous frustrations of cranky old men. But while this piece of writing you find in your hands does indeed center on one very important lesson, it will come with none of that “Back in my day!” nostalgia to scare you away. Because this is a story about right here and right now. Yes, there are hints of the future and just a bit of the past, but it’s certainly about today.
Which is to say: it’s about NOTHING.
NOTHING is the title of the 4th studio album from Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo and Shae Haley – collectively, the three musicians-slash-producers-slash-singers-slash-songwriters known as N*E*R*D. (No-one Ever Really Dies). Formed as a concept band in their hometown of Virginia Beach, in 2000, N*E*R*D stands – defiantly – ten years later as a group of musicians who have worked tirelessly to carve out and conquer a new space in an otherwise nebulous musical world.
Amazingly, this was not the album you were intended to hear. Early in 2010, Pharrell, Chad and Shae sat in their Miami recording studio listening to roughly 20 songs, recorded over the previous year, that they believed would form their newest album. Previous LPs, like their critically-acclaimed, highly-influential IN SEARCH OF, and its follow-ups, FLY OR DIE and SEEING SOUNDS, had explored the diasporas of the rock ‘n roll sound. They tenaciously, passionately created a musical space that subscribed to no boundaries or set of rules; and in that, created a loyal and dedicated following of fans that came from a myriad of backgrounds. In many ways, the group could have easily gotten away with releasing just about anything and it had a very good shot at finding some success. But N*E*R*D is not a group that feels comfortable with just getting by.
“It didn’t feel right. Sitting there and listening to it, it was definitely a new sound, an experimental sound. With a little bit more work, we’d have had something that the average person probably would’ve been just as happy with,” says the group’s vocalist and co-songwriter, Shae of the first sessions. “But we would *know*. Our core fans would *know*. It wouldn’t be us.”
“People are concerned with war and the world. People are still dealing with their issues even if we think thing have changed,” explains Pharrell. “And when we looked back on those 20 records, they weren’t really saying what we wanted to say. They weren’t good enough.”
And so N*E*R*D scrapped all 20 of those songs and decided to start over. They went back to NOTHING.
“I believe in making ‘something’ out of ‘nothing,’” says Chad Hugo. “Anyone who makes art or expresses themselves in any creative way, it’s a challenge to empty out the cup and then try and refill it again. You want that challenge, to see if you can come up with something new and not rely on what you’ve done before. That’s how we motivate ourselves.”
Did you catch that? Some of the most successful musicians in the world, who have every reason to just rest easy and trade on their name and reputation, scrapped an entire year’s worth of work to challenge themselves and make something better. Clean the slate and start again. Do it better. Do it right.
To understand this approach, one only need appreciate what N*E*R*D has meant to Pharrell, Chad and Shae. Under the Neptunes production moniker, Williams and Hugo changed the sound of pop music with their sophisticated minimalism, unleashing a limitless number of hits for artists like Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Snoop Dogg, The Clipse, Gwen Stefani and on and on and on (seriously – this could go on for another ten pages, so just TRUST, ok?). N*E*R*D was never meant to be a one-off side-project. The trio formed the band out of a genuine thirst for creative exploration – a hybrid of rock ‘n roll, hip-hop, R&B, country, blues, sci-fi. It was intended to be a manifestation of “folk” music, whoever and wherever those folk might be. It culminated in the 2001 release of IN SEARCH OF, a thoroughly un- self-conscious exploration of the human condition that, nearly a decade later, remains a standard- bearing, risk-taking template for any other artist searching beyond themselves. NOTHING is a return to that form.
“We wanted to go back to talking about whatever we feel, whatever we saw,” says Pharrell. “When we first started playing music, we started with nothing and that was a pretty cool place to go back to.”
Throughout their history, N*E*R*D has always marched forward with a quiet desperation. They have been afforded all the luxuries that come with success – and yet, this is a band that still grinds it out as if they were a starving local band working the club circuit. Two-thirds of their year is spent on the road, touring incessantly. They play big metropolises and small Midwestern cities, from festival shows to more intimate college campuses. Certainly, it’s not something they would ever have to do. But it’s in the experience of playing live, in creating and sustaining and riding that connection with their audience, that they discovered the essence of their music and for why they exist.
“If you want to know how to run something, you gotta work in the mailroom first,” says Pharrell. “I don’t want that to come out the wrong way but playing live is our mailroom, it’s our laboratory, it’s where you see the connection between music and your songs and the fans and the reaction you get all in one place.”
“There’s no greater feeling than looking out at an audience, whether it’s in New York, Australia or Japan, and seeing kids – black, white, Latino, male, female, whatever – shouting the words back to you or rockin’ out and having a good time,” says Shae. “It is the most beautiful thing.”
NOTHING not only taps into that connection with their growing fan-base but also reaches back to the days of IN SEARCH OF – but more in spirit than in actual sound. “It’s so 1970s, multi-flavored denim, when there weren’t so many rules.” Pharrell describes. Shae adds that if In Search Of… drew inspiration from the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire and Steely Dan, then NOTHING “is more like The Doors or the band America.”
The sound of NOTHING, through its 14 tracks, is decidedly stripped down – like their debut – but no less powerful. Whereas the albums FLY OR DIE and SEEING SOUNDS pumped the volume up with big band rock songs, NOTHING is a rock ‘n roll soul album. The first single, “Hot N’ Fun,” features the Neptunes’ collaborator and friend, Nelly Furtado. It is a bounce-filled, sweaty summer club track that has echoes of old-school roller-skating jams. (Astute music heads may hear a trace of De La Soul influences in the song’s bravado, which Pharrell admits could be the case: “No matter what I do or who I work with, the Native Tongues are in my DNA.”). Other songs like “Party People” and “In The Air” cultivate the youthful idealism of hearing a favorite song for the first time, while Pharrell spins slick-tongued poetry about the appeal of women. For him, his approach is to “not sing sexy shit, but sing about real shit in a sexy way.”
Back when N*E*R*D first started, Pharrell and Chad described the group, saying, “N*E*R*D is a basic belief. People’s energies are made of their souls. When you die, that energy may disperse but it isn’t destroyed.” And that is the lesson in all of this. This group of talented and successful artists shunned a dependence on their past and concentrated on their present, knowing that whatever they put out into the world would always be out in the world. They created NOTHING. And Nothing Ever Really Dies.