Though fronted by the playful, club-friendly single "Hot N' Fun," featuring Nelly Furtado, Williams -- who founded the group with Neptunes production partner Chad Hugo and Shay Haley -- says the rest of the album is a bit more serious in tone. "We needed to align ourselves and make ourselves parallel and congruent with what society is feeling," Williams tells Billboard.com. "There's a lot going on and a lot of things people don't necessarily understand. We have a Tea Party. We have conservative Democrats. We have liberals that are like neo-liberals and nothing like you thought they'd be. There's so many different hybrid sects of people and issues...
"So we thought why not make a timeless album that's kind of a time capsule, so 10 years from now people look at that album and go, 'I remember that era. That's when the 'Nothing' album came out.' I just wanted to make some good music that would affect people in a good way."
Williams says it wasn't easy. N*E*R*D worked on "a previous body of work which was really good, but it wasn't timeless to me. I didn't feel like we were pushing ourselves as much as we could. We needed to perfect the sound, so we kept pushing the date back until it was right."
The result includes "a lot of vintage sounds...The album is very '68-'72,'73, America meets Crosby, Stills & Nash meets Moody Blues. I don't sound at all like John Fogerty, it's the feeling he had when he was with Creedence Clearwater Revival...the engineering and the sound design itself was just state-of-the-art and still sounds that way. I felt if I could just make a patchwork of all those various textures I could move people."
The songs, meanwhile, are topical, including: "The Man," which deals with the homogenization of American culture and society; "Help Me," which addresses "the collective conscience of our country; the environmentally themed, Jacques Cousteau-inspired "Life is a Fish;" and the redemptive "God Bless Us All," which Williams says is "about a friend of ours in the business, a superstar who went through a crazy, rough patch and we wanted to offer him words of encouragement." Though not identifying the subject, Williams says "he's making good music and people are warming back up to him."
The closing track, a collaboration with Daft Punk called "Hypnotize U," came "at the very last minute," according to Williams. "I bumped into those guys and we hadn't worked together in almost 10 years," he says, "so we decided to do something together and it was super cool, like a magical moment out of nowhere happening in the fourth quarter."
N*E*R*D is currently on the road opening for Gorillaz through Nov. 3. There are also dates booked for Australia, Africa and the Middle East, but Williams says the group will concentrate on "doing things that are unconventional. I think I want to broaden the N*E*R*D brand and expand it in a way people are not necessarily expecting. It's time for N*E*R*D to spread it wings and reinvent the definition of the experience of N*E*R*D, and that will be happening very soon."