Failing to deliver on its immense potential, this album will provide you with several highs but also plenty of lows.
No_One Ever Really Dies is an extremely frustrating album. Returning after a 7-year hiatus, N.E.R.D have served up a record which promises much, sparkles occasionally but ultimately flatters to deceive. Stuffed with an assortment of superstar features – including Rihanna, Future, Ed Sheeran, Kendrick Lamar and Andre 3000 – the overwhelming feeling is one of disappointment at what could have been.
Part of this disappointment stems from the fact that when Pharrell Williams gets it right, he gets it very, very right. Several tracks stand out from the album as truly magnificent pieces of production and lyricism. The album grabs you instantly with the lead-off track ‘Lemon’, which with its relentless, pounding bassline and snarling feature by Rihanna, leave you in anticipation for the rest of the album. The closing song of the album, ‘Lifting You’, is surprisingly good. This track is downright weird. Combining an identikit Pharrell beat – all synths, electronics and snare drums – with a reggae background and Ed Sheeran laying down the chorus, this really should not work. Yet it does, with Sheeran’s vocals fitting the reggae beat unexpectedly well.
The best song on the album is without doubt ‘Don’t Don’t Do It!’, a song inspired by Keith Scott, the black man who was fatally shot by police in Charlotte, North Carolina, last year. Beginning slowly and softly, with a melodic R&B backing and mellow vocals, the song quickly ups tempo and shifts in tone. The lyrics become increasingly political and emotive, culminating in a Kendrick verse which rails against police brutality and the perceived racism of American police. Lyrics such as “raise your hand up, and they’ll shoot ya” encapsulates the sentiment of ‘Don’t Don’t Do It!’. The verse prior to Lamar’s sees Pharrell list a number of cities and towns notable for police brutality against black people. This theme of activism and protest rings through the whole album.
The rest of the album ranges from mediocre to outright awful. ‘1000’ is a frenetic, messy assault on the ears which, for the most part, comes across as chaotic babble. Even the feature, the usually reliable Future, is auto-tuned to within an inch of his life. ‘Lightning Fire Magic Prayer’ is far too long, clocking in at a mammoth 7 minutes and 45 seconds. Encompassing a mix of melodies and beats, the track and the album as a whole, are at their best when stripped back to its simplest form. It is difficult not to view this album as a bloated Director’s Cut which is in desperate need of an edit, requiring someone just to whisper in Pharrell’s ear to tell him to keep it simple.
Don’t get me wrong No_One Ever Really Dies is far from bad, but it could be so much more. Features from the elusive Andre 3000 and the mercurial M.I.A. are wasted by the cluttered nature of the songs. N.E.R.D’s desire to constantly chop and change the beat in the middle of songs is also an irritation as if they cannot get to the end of a song without enforcing a drastic change in tempo or style. Here’s hoping that next time, if it takes another 7 years, N.E.R.D. can produce something with a little bit more finesse and a little less clutter.
No_One Ever Really Dies is out now via Columbia Records