Musings on music delivered when I dig myself out.

N.E.R.D. -- Fly or Die
Virgin Records; 2004

The Neptunes are highly overrated. And yet, scores of the greatest groups of all time have been overrated, which shows it certainly isn't the worst thing to be. That is, unless you happen to actually be the Neptunes. The famed production duo's rap-rock facet, N.E.R.D., has become a place where the two can let their now inflated egos run wild. The result is Fly or Die, the product of swelled heads and the increased desire for hip-hop fixtures to be acknowledged by the rock music world.

Now don't get me wrong, The Neptunes are fantastically talented musicians. Their production work of the last five years has yielded some of the best hip hop and pop singles of the times, putting them up there with Timbaland and Dr. Dre. Even ...In Search Of, their previous N.E.R.D. effort, was pretty good. So why is Fly or Die such a different story?

For one, the majority of this album's songs are essentially meaningless. Long gone are songs like "Bobby James" that give intimate portrayals of teenage drug dealers or the economic struggles of "Provider." Even the sex romps of "Truth or Dare" and "Tape You" had some substance to them: they were very human and down to earth songs. Fly or Die finds singer Pharrell Williams and instrumentalist Chad Hugo with their heads stuck in the high and mighty clouds. The songs are musically accessible, but have nothing to them lyrically.

Instead of topics the average person can relate to, we get Pharrell talking about being a kid in 2k4, a topic his rich, single, 30-year-old ass knows little about, and it shows. Other songs like "Wonderful Place" or "Waiting For U" are practically unintelligible. "Cuz cartoons are turning into real life / Lemons and limes are fighting / Fighting over straws..." Huh? Perhaps he was thinking listeners would be too caught up in the grooving music to notice his literary blunders.

Unfortunately, that musical end of the group isn't enough to carry the album either. What hasn't carried through from ...In Search Of is their sense of adventure. All the kick in the face bombast of "Rock Star" is diffused into the stoopid come-ons of Hendrix-derived "Backseat Love." In place of the calming lounge feel of "Stay Together" we get "Chariot of Fire", a track that sounds like a piano-based Avril Lavigne clunker. Avril-fucking-Lavigne, folks.

Simply put, The Neptunes have become cocky. Instead of pushing themselves to create the magical Midas touch they're so well known for, they think they can get away with anything. In addition, they've all but abandoned their hip-hop roots this time out. Much like other popular hip-hop artists Eminem and Outkast, they've found one of the best ways to connect with the rock audiences is, well, to make rock songs. Who can blame them? Look at the outstanding success of Outkast's chart-ripper "Hey Ya" and Eminem's you-can-do-it anthem, "Lose Yourself"; it's undeniable that they shift units like gangbusters.

There are a few bright points mired in Fly or Die's mediocrity, and thankfully they're hot. The album's single, "She Wants to Move" is quirky and contagious -- a complex dance number that comes packaged with the new catchphrase "she's SEXXXY!" "Maybe" is the album's secret weapon; a deceptively simple song that makes its money with fierce guitar lines, blissful harmonies, and noodling synth squiggles.

As Spiderman's dear old Uncle Ben once told him, "With great power comes great responsibility." Such is true for The Neptunes too. They've certainly worked hard to attain their great status in production and to succeed with their first N.E.R.D venture. Now it appears that all this glory has left them too full of themselves to put forth the same effort. Fly or Die seems to be their low point -- let's hope the mighty don't fall any further.

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