32 — [Rating Scale]
The song that best sums up my feelings for N.E.R.D.’s Nothing is “Life As A Fish.” I’m not entirely how to explain this song. Shockingly true to the title, it is a song vaguely detailing the existence of an aquatic vertebrate, with a dreamy backing track that sounds like what would happen if The Neptunes remixed elevator music. It’s thematically all over the place; it touches on creation and evolution, the limited lives of fish and, finally, a kind of criticism of humanity from a fish’s perspective with a warning against littering thrown in for good measure. The chorus is a comical crescendo of “On dry land (dry land), where the living scream die man (die man).” It is literally insane, disorganized and, to be frank, bad.
It is a little unfair to bring up “Life As A Fish” first, because it is far and away the worst of the bunch. However, much of what makes that song so terrible recurs again and again throughout Nothing. It is a sprawling, disorganized piece of music, on both the song and album levels. This is N.E.R.D. at their worst. On each of their previous albums, the band implements a wide variety of influences and elements to their songs. Always creative, their records have always been hit and miss, but the hits yield extremely solid results, and some of the best riffs and basslines in the business. Here, the hits are far outnumbered by the misses. The songs have none of the inspired elements or wild ambitions that characterize the best tracks from previous records. Nothing plods along, each track just as odd and boring as the last.
“Hypnotize U” is a prime example of this. Say what you will about The Neptunes, but they have proved themselves as an innovative force in popular music over the past decade. Daft Punk’s reputation goes without saying. How a collaboration between the two is so underwhelming is a frustrating mystery. The track itself is cool but unimpressive, and Pharrell’s falsetto crooning is just as boring and slightly irritating as it inevitably always will be. His singing and songwriting is a constant detriment to the album, and it is especially apparent here.
When “Hot N Fun” was selected earlier this year as the lead single for the album, my overriding assumption was that it was in part due to the Nelly Furtado feature. However, when lined up with the rest of the album, it really is the best song on Nothing. It’s one of the few that doesn’t feel like it’s going on for a few minutes too long, and is somewhat catchy. N.E.R.D.’s attempt at making a very pop friendly track means it doesn’t have the unnecessary elements that characterize most of the rest here.
“I Wanna Jam,” “Sacred Temple” and “Party People” all get honorable mentions in the album standout category here, but none could be really considered good. The truth is that this is a very weak record, with few redeeming features. Pharrell, never an exceptional frontman, seems to have phoned in his part here, his songwriting is pretty abysmal. And that is coming from someone who really liked In My Mind. There are occasional glimpses of the creativity that N.E.R.D. is capable of here, but it is largely obscured.