This week we take a look at the first album since 2010 from Neptunes side project N.E.R.D., and the third album released this year by L.A. hip-hop collective Brockhampton.
N.E.R.D., No One Ever Really Dies
The Pax Neptunia lasted, roughly, from 1999 (“Got Your Money”) through 2006 (Hell Hath No Fury), a hot streak during which Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams proved that the most forward-thinking producers in pop music could also be the most earth-shatteringly successful. N.E.R.D. originally seemed like a sort of skunkworks for them, a rap-rock trifle that showed just how many beats these dudes had in the bank. In 2017, No One Ever Really Dies isn’t quite a comeback, but it is a nervy assertion of the side project’s continued relevance. Aspects of its production sound as immortal as Pharrell himself appears to be, with those plush, rounded drums that made it millions still powering the whole machine smoothly. But the N.E.R.D. project has always served as a clearing house for the duo’s most experimental impulses, meaning those production techniques are wrapped around oddball catcall indie-pop (“ESP”) and aquatic funk (“Lightning Fire Magic Prayer”). A murderer’s row of guests finds itself slotted into unconventional settings, whether it’s Rihanna turning into ’02 JAY-Z on the seismically fun “Lemon,” Gucci Mane flitting in as an almost instrumental adornment on “Voilà,” or a pair of Kendrick Lamar verses that rattle like firecrackers. It’s a weird fucking album, in other words, neither as crowd-pleasing as it should be nor as experimental as it wants to be. The drums sound great, though, and the Rihanna track is as good as N.E.R.D. gets.
RIYL: MGMT. Bad Flaming Lips. Over-produced “druggy” indie rock with occasional verses from world-class rappers.
Start here: First single “Lemon” is a fucking smash, and for good reason—a dense assemblage of percussion, hi-hats, catchphrases, and one fantastically charismatic superstar captured in the most flattering light imaginable. It’s vintage Neptunes, in other words.
Brockhampton records can sound like they’re on shuffle. This is, perhaps, a collateral effect of releasing three albums in six months containing contributions from more than a dozen members, a self-styled modern boy band (they insist upon the term) all based out of a shared house in Los Angeles. But the music, erratic as it is, crackles with a strange energy; it’s definitely hip-hop, but utterly unencumbered by tradition. On Saturation III, the conclusion of a trilogy intended as a sort of proof of concept for the collective, they go from menacing electro (“Sister/Nation”) to sprightly indie-pop (“Hottie”), often within just a few minutes. Like its predecessors, the album is hit or miss, but the batting average remains uncommonly high for a project like this. You could slot the breezy, golden-age “Johnny” alongside any of the underground hits the crew has released this year, while the suitelike “Bleach” is an abstract R&B power ballad with an aching, heartsick climax. If it seems like there’s nothing these guys can’t do, it’s because there’s nothing they’re not willing to try. Next year’s promisingly titled fourth album, Team Effort, suggests they’ll be attempting their greatest feat yet: concision.
RIYL: Kanye West. Injury Reserve. Frank Ocean.
Start here: “Johnny” is Brockhampton at its best: Breezy beats folding into each other, verses that alternate from funny (Kevin Abstract: “Anybody got Harry Styles’ phone number?“) to revealing (Jabo: “I’m a shithead son, and I’m bad at growing up”).
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