One of the great ironies of The Neptunes' increasingly surreal journey through pop superstardom is that the production duo's sound, while ubiquitous and incredibly popular, isn't particularly commercial, at least in the P. Diddy conception of the word. But in hip-hop, as in the rest of the pop world, success begets success, and after the popularity of Neptunes-produced hits like "Shake Ya Ass" and "Got Your Money," the producers' jittery, neurotic funk quickly became ubiquitous on the hip-hop and pop charts. Even Britney Spears, 'N Sync, and Babyface came calling on Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams' unlikely hit-making services, so it didn't come as much of a surprise when the pair announced that they would step out from behind the boards as N*E*R*D (short for No-one Ever Really Dies). In keeping with their reputation for eccentricity, they pulled the original version of N*E*R*D's debut well after it had hit shelves abroad, and announced that they would re-record it with live instruments. The decision proved wise, as the American version of In Search Of... sounds dynamic and alive in a way that would be nearly impossible to imagine without live instrumentation. A hip-hop album only in the loosest sense of the term, In Search Of... should come as a shock to anyone expecting a slick rap album in line with The Neptunes' deep catalog of hits. Superstar collaborators are virtually absent, while the few instances of rapping are strictly generic and low-wattage. Thankfully, In Search Of... isn't a failed rap album, but a strange, rewarding, unclassifiable journey into the sonic imagination of The Neptunes, and without a doubt the weirdest, funkiest disc ever released by a Britney Spears producer. Closer in spirit and sound to the studio-obsessed sophistication of Steely Dan than the last Noreaga album, In Search Of... begins with The Neptunes' spastic funk, but adds layers of sonic fussiness, lyrical weirdness, and twisting, unconventional song structures. "Lapdance," the first single, comes closest to recapturing the vibe and sound of The Neptunes' hits, but with its deranged lyrics about strippers and politicians, it provides a good entryway into the duo's weird world. Other tracks document the oddball misadventures of teenage runaways, drug addicts, and sex fiends, but N*E*R*D's wiggy lyrical content almost always takes a back seat to the pair's invigorating sonic explorations. Whether In Search Of... will continue The Neptunes' commercial winning streak is anybody's guess, but as a funky, unforgettable debut, it should at least make Hugo and Williams bona fide cult stars.