By 2004, three years after their debut ‘In Search Of…’, The Neptunes had - with follow-up ‘Fly Or Die’ - found that sweet spot of blurring R&B and hip-hop without it being Kisstory fodder. Their sonic adventures to this point had ensured that anything N*E*R*D or The Neptunes created was instantly recognisable. Fresh from producing the first two Clipse albums, they’d evolved into a fully-functioning and chart-topping duo.
In its sturdy 55 minutes, ‘Fly Or Die’ reaches peaks of guitar and ’80s FM pop, and then there’s the hard-ass drums that all great Pharrell tracks have. But it also did something else: Williams and Chad Hugo tried their hand at welding radio rock and rap metal riffs.
The result is an album of maximalism - evident from the cock rock screaming guitars of ‘Don’t Worry About It’ to the abrasive fun of ‘Thrasher’, which carries the timeless message that though “Every once in a while there is some asshole giving you shit,” just don’t sweat it; fuck ’em. And when such sage advice is being offered by someone as effortlessly cool as Pharrell Williams, it becomes even more of an uplifting statement.
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In retrospect, ‘Fly Or Die’ sounds a little out of line for a production duo that had previously crafted songs for the likes of Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Kelis, and essentially launched Justin Timberlake into superstardom with multiple credits on ‘Justified’. But what’s even stranger is that ‘Fly Or Die’ was heavily advertised in Kerrang!, a metal magazine aimed at teenagers.
However you want to dissect this record, it is never metal. Rap rock, yes, at times. But that’s not its strengths. Williams might be something of a musical chameleon, adapt at multiple genres but ‘Fly Or Die’ hits its peaks when it explores off-kilter hip-hop.
For example, lead single ‘She Wants To Move and ‘Drill Sergeant’ are both no-holds-barred stompers punctuated by the punchy drums that kick like a mule (the live instrumentation courtesy of Williams and Hugo for the first time) and have always been the USP of The Neptunes’ work.
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It is an album that refuses to be pigeonholed though. N*E*R*D could likely very easily make a record of hard-ass drum bangers, but Williams and Hugo seem far more interested in showcasing their ability to tackle any and every musical style under the sun.
That non-conforming approach ensured the individuality and timelessness of ‘Fly Or Die’, landing as it did in a time just before such cross-pollination became all too omnipresent in the mainstream arena, and being lauded as a complex and innovative record that deserved repeated revisits.
N*E*R*D have yet to reach similarly dizzying heights again - sure, their extra-curricular work has delivered some thrilling and iconic cuts - but in comparison, subsequent releases (‘Seeing Sounds’ in 2008, ‘Nothing’ in 2010, and ‘No One Ever Really Dies’ in 2017) have sounded like experimental off-cuts for ideas that other artists rejected.
If the album’s title represented a risk undertaken, the stepping off a ledge from which there is no return, then the music within certainly ensured that N*E*R*D had truly taken flight.
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Words: Matthew Cooper
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