N.E.R.D. 

Fly or Die

For all the esteem the title carries, producing records is -- or at least used to be -- a mostly faceless job. Presumably, that's why the world-famous Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo) weren't content to be simply the men behind the boards of such hip-hop party hits as Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass" and Nelly's "Hot in Herre," as well as the platinum pop of Britney Spear's "I'm a Slave 4 U." So their full-band alter ego, N.E.R.D. (which also includes their buddy Shay), allowed the Neptunes to grab their share of the spotlight, and they did so greedily with their aptly titled 2001 single "Rock Star."

Now that the Neptunes -- Pharrell in particular -- are truly insanely famous, Fly or Die backs that old single's boasts with the requisite swagger. While the group's full-length debut In Search of ... bolstered N.E.R.D.'s blips and bleeps with the talents of funk-rockers Spymob, this one rests completely on the trio's own musical merits. Sure, Hugo is still a neophyte guitarist (he picked up the six-string just last year), and Williams' drumming is limited to the most basic timekeeping. But somehow they manage to ring maximum soul from their minimal skills. Hugo favors the squealing fuzz-tones of Hendrix and Funkadelic's Eddie Hazel, and Williams' tenor at times recalls Curtis Mayfield, but those references only hint at the crate-digging approach that yields influences not normally heard in their productions, including classic Isley Brothers, '60s easy listening, and power pop. It's all tempered with the group's trademark absurdity, of course, most notably in perhaps the oddest tribute to the female form ever made: Her ass is a spaceship I want to ride, Williams lustily declares in the groupie anthem "She Wants to Move."

It's tempting to lump such a surreal, genre-defying work in with the innovations of OutKast and others pushing hip-hop in bold new directions, but the fact is Fly or Die is a straight-up pop-rock album. Early in the title track Williams hollers This is for the kids!, and that's actually a pretty picture. Imagine this album fueling pool parties, filling shopping malls, and saturating corporate airwaves: What a wonderful world that would be.

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