N.E.R.D. waited a full seven years before delivering No_One Ever Really Dies earlier this month, the follow up to 2010’s Nothing — and a lot has changed since then.
In the time between the two albums, fans became acquainted with a more radio-friendly pop solo Pharrell, all while the world moved closer to hip-hop, officially making it the most popular genre in the United States this year.
So where does N.E.R.D. — a part-rap, part-punk, part-pop group fit into all of this? With features ranging from pop titan Ed Sheeran to rap veteran Andre 3000, a large portion of that question can be answered in the album’s features.
So we took the liberty to rank each one, seeing how Pharrell, Chad Hugo, and Shay Haley complimented their sound with that of today and tomorrow, in the way only N.E.R.D. can.
9. “1000” feat. Future
Future crooning with a heavy Auto-Tune isn’t new, and him bragging about clothing, women, and the clubs isn’t necessarily new, either. The beat on the “1000” is insane, bouncing from what sounds like ’80s techno to pop to a marching song.
And while Future somewhat fits into the grand scheme of things, he doesn’t really pull things together quite as well as some of the other album features. It seems like a random place to put a trap artist, and the verse itself is not a standout for Future. It’s not that Future can’t exist in N.E.R.D.’s world, but perhaps Pharrell should have called on Future on another beat, or with a fresher message.
8. “Kites” feat. M.I.A.
One of N.E.R.D.’s main talents is the ability to string sounds together that would seem like nonsense on a surface level. So while Kendrick Lamar and M.I.A. together may not render as a stretch sonically, “Kites” feels like a potential opportunity lost with Kendrick and M.I.A. operating on different wavelengths.
Each verse is great on its own, but it’s hard not to think what could have been if they paired M.I.A. and Lamar together in the way that Pharrell and Lamar go back and forth on this one. And M.I.A. definitely delivered alone, giving her signature swagger on the back end of the track, but the placement could have been better.
7. “Rollinem 7’s” feat. Andre 3000
As of late, the ever-elusive Andre 3000 has been throwing fans occasional interviews and fairly frequent features, which is all almost enough to satiate the need for 3 Stacks in today’s rap world. However, this latest peep from Andre probably won’t be enough to keep fans quiet for long.
His verse is tucked deep into the album, and on the latter half of an otherwise repetitive, and potentially forgettable song. Of course, it’s still Andre 3000. No one has his flow, and no one raps abut mundane things, like omelettes and quiche, in a way that Andre can. It may not be N.E.R.D.’s responsibility to satisfy Andre’s fans, but Andre deserves more than his placement on “Rollinem 7’s.”
6. “Volia” feat. Gucci Mane
The chorus of “Voila” is an ode to the early days of N.E.R.D. With the choppy guitar and the equally synced choppy vocals from Gucci Mane, it sounds like a turned down, more melodic “Everyone Nose,” complete with a lyrical nod to Pharrell’s old school nickname Skateboard P.
And while this wasn’t really a chance for Gucci to stunt his lyricism, as his feature was only on the chorus, the familiar deep sound of his voice seemed to be enough. Gucci as a melodic add-on most likely would not have gone over as smoothly in the early 2000s, but in 2017, Gucci on a singing chorus is hip-hop gold.
5. “Kites” feat. Kendrick Lamar
This is one of two incredible uses of Lamar on this album. And much like Kendrick’s verse on “Don’t Do it,” (we’ll get to that later), the beauty of using him in this song is his ability to comment on heavy issues effortlessly. In a dream trifecta of artists, Lamar, M.I.A., and Pharrell speak on adolescent refugees, each with their own unique sound and energy.
For Lamar, this means rhyming about the importance of God, while also referencing a Gil Scott Heron poem. And aside from lyrical mastery, Lamar’s verse is phonetically set up with he break in the beat, showcasing his verse, and giving him the chance to do what he does and knows best.
4. “Lifting You” feat. Ed Sheeran
Really and truly never expected, an Ed Sheeran feature would go above Kendrick Lamar, but N.E.R.D.’s unpredictability somehow makes this somewhat less surprising. On the first half of “Lifting You”, there seemed to be no reason for any feature on this otherwise perfect Shaggy-inspired song.
For this one, Pharrell drops the rapping that fans have learned to expect from him in a post “Move That Dope” era, and gives us the high notes we all know and love from an younger version of himself. And then suddenly, the crisp vocals sound a little different, as none other than Sheeran himself takes over, giving us a higher-pitched, more relaxed version of what he usually delivers on the radio. The subtle change and exchanges between Sheeran and Pharrell on vocals make this a surprisingly subtle and beautifully done feature.
3. “Volia” feat. Wale
At about 3:15, “Voila” takes a sharp turn sound-wise. On an island-inspired outro, Wale comes in with well-timed Kid Cudi-esque humming and a slow Migos-esque flow to close out what sounds like a completely different song than the one Gucci was on earlier.
Pharrell described this last part of the song during his Beats 1 radio show as, “basically just like a Cherub song,” which is exactly what makes the inclusion of D.C. rapper Wale such an inventive additive. While Wale’s lyrics aren’t anything revolutionary, its the placement and engineering of this feature that matters. And much like any good bridge or outro, the last minute of the song could stand alone as a standout song. The inclusion of a wildcard feature at the end of a song is an incredibly Pharrell move, and for that creative placement and the killer execution, this feature gets an A+ mark, and our number three spot.
2. “Don’t Do It!” feat. Kendrick Lamar
“Don’t Do It!” is one of only a few songs on the album that sounds like something that could snuggly fit into N.E.R.D.’s library during the “Seeing Sounds” era, with Pharrell shining on the chorus with a punk-inspired chant. In fact, all in all, it’s a pretty straight forward N.E.R.D. song.
Well, that is until Lamar comes in out of nowhere. K.Dot’s feature is a drive-by lasting only a little over thirty seconds, yet it elevates the song’s meaning and style swiftly and efficiently. And while Lamar’s verse obviously isn’t the first time he has rapped about police brutality or the plights of the United States justice system, his ability to highlight and break down such complex issues through only a few bars — all while making historical allusions and referencing characters from his own songs, is what makes the record special.
At one point, he rhymes, “same rules, same chalk, different decade, same laws,” which has to be one of the most straightforward and satisfying rally cries in recent history. “Don’t Do It!” is a flawless combination of classic Neptunes production paired with a modern feature that takes the album to the place outside of what N.E.R.D was in the early 2000s.
1. “Lemon” feat. Rihanna
Rihanna rapping doesn’t happen that often. In fact, most of the other times she’s “rapped” it’s been more of an early 2000s Drake-esque sing-rap on her own songs like “Bitch Better Have My Money” or “Pour it Up.” But on “Lemon,” we get Rihanna as a true rap feature, and there’s something so refreshing about calling on a female lead not to sing the hook, but to deliver, what ends up being, the best verse of the album.
Rihanna’s style and confidence is what makes her a queen, and to hear her explicitly acknowledge that, demanding “the paparazzi get the lens right,” has to be one of the most satisfying moments of this album, and of her year musically. She even squeezes in a reference to her biggest crush Lebron James in the middle of the verse. Plus, for a first time rapper, Rihanna’s actual flow is something to note, as she bounces in and out of different parts of the beat.
The surprise of Rihanna rapping, matched with her actual execution, makes this the best feature of the album. So cheers to Rihanna knowing her worth always, and cheers to N.E.R.D. for opening up space for a female lead.