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Game Boy: N.E.R.D. gets the high score.

Shake Ya Ass, Humor Yourself

The Neptunes--a.k.a. N.E.R.D.--have fun with the 'playa' lifestyle they helped define

By Oliver Wang

UNLESS YOU'VE been deaf or dead the last two years, you've heard the Neptunes. They've become the production team in hip-hop, in soul and increasingly in rock and pop circles, working for everyone from Britney Spears to No Doubt to Jay Z. In the process, they've burst onto the pop-music scene the same way Roy Lichtenstein did into the pop-art world--loud, colorful and instantly familiar. Their palette always seems to include twisty, tweaky drum programming; shiny, sparkly synthesizers; and their signature device of choice aggressive slap-bass lines as artificial as saccharin.

Yet, unlike other producers with a one-note repertoire--the Trackmasters or Swizz Beats for example--the Neptunes manage to resell the same package a dozen times over just out of sheer excess, reveling in making everything just a little bit louder, darker, slicker, etc. It's pop shine with a hip-hop twist, bringing together the best elements of both aesthetics for a sound that's probably too rough for teenyboppers and too polished for roughnecks but is, for the rest of us, a guilty pleasure minus the guilt.

Under the N.E.R.D. banner, the Neptunes--Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo and third member Shay--have pulled off their most brilliant power move yet with In Search Of ... (EMD/Virgin), unleashing music and lyrics in such a liberated and joyous way that you wonder who had more fun: them making the album or you listening to it.

Originally recorded mid-2001, In Search Of ... was set for a fall release when the Neptunes decided to go back and rerecord the entire project with live instrumentation. The arrangements are the same but the sound radically different. The original In Search Of ... was pleasant but pastel. This new version bursts with colorful kinetics--the drums shimmer harder, the keyboards are more vibrant, the bass lines roll with more viscosity. But fidelity aside, In Search Of ... moves in unexpected music directions. It's not a conventional hip-hop, R&B or rock album, even if all three converge in surprising ways.

For example, "Baby Doll" has a gritty, indie-rock feel with a Britpop vocal flourish, something that would have fit nicely on an old modern-rock playlist between the Pixies and Pet Shop Boys. "Rock Star" begins with an acidic edge familiar to Limplinkin Parkbizkit fans, but the tooty-toot synthesizer stabs keep the song from being just another mosh-pit mook anthem. Meanwhile, "Things Are Getting Better" smashes together acid-jazz keyboard textures with a jagged guitar riff, sounding at once slick and sinister.

The album is a tour de force of innovative sonic play that wasn't necessarily fully hinted at in the Neptunes' ubiquitous projects for others. But what's most striking is how brilliantly tongue-in-cheek vocalist Williams is in his songwriting. Williams scored some of the biggest thug and playa anthems in recent rap/R&B history (Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass" and Jay Z's "I'm a Hustler" among them), and he goofs on all those cliché conventions of sex, money and power. It's done with such straight-faced sincerity that you sometimes wonder if he's for real. On "Tape You," he sings, "Relax girl / Sip some of my Slurpee / You don't have to lie to me / It's fly to me / And this way / you can have your privacy / and at the same time, I can see."

It's tempting to compare In Search Of ... with another hip-hop album of similar attitude: De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising. Both artists manage to skirt that fine, crossover line between alternative-pop hipness (read: white) and ghettocentric appeal (read: black). The two albums played back-to-back would sound incredible, but the key difference is that the Neptunes don't have the same bright-eyed innocence as De La did in 1989. They've already rolled down too many red carpets with their superstars to pull off that kind of ingenuous charm.

At the same time, however, most of the songs are refreshingly sung or rhymed without any ironic, wink-wink smarminess. The songs are silly, but it's a silliness that belies the Neptunes' considerable sense of humor for how crazy, ridiculous--and enjoyable--the pop world is. They poke fun at it by diving in headfirst rather than standing back and lazily jabbing. Listen to Williams as he postures with the best of them on "Rock Star": "You can't be me / I'm a rock star / I'm rhyming on top of a cop car / I'm a rebel, and my .44 pops far."

Listening to In Search Of ... , you know that you shouldn't take the Neptunes any more seriously than they take themselves. And as a result, it's likely you won't have more fun with any other pop album this year.

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From the April 11-17, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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