Rolling Stones 3/5
While writing their third album, N¤E¤R¤D watched a Discovery Channel show about synesthesia, a neurological disorder that causes people to experience sounds as colors or as objects in their minds. Superproducers The Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo) and their rapping buddy Shay Haley were inspired to create music you could envision as a live show. Does that creative concept work? Hard to say, but the results are experimental and expansive: Specked with ostentatiously weird grooves, “Spaz” and the speedy, jazzy single “Everyone Nose” are destined to go down as some of 2008’s most interesting hip-hop cuts.
The album also dips into Sixties soul (the sweet “Sooner Or Later“) and chugging, riff-driven rock (“Kill Joy“), and tosses in big New Wave choruses. But some melodies feel tossed-off (is Pharrell spending too much time writing for other artists?), and you don’t learn much from Pharrell’s lyrics except that he’s horny. The Neptunes don’t necessarily need guest MCs to make a great album of their own, but if they want their rhymes to keep up with the strength of their tunes, they need to dig a little deeper than this.
Real Talk NY 4/5
For superstar producer Pharrell, there’s not much at stake when he decides to gather his N¤E¤R¤D cohorts for a new album. After all, the pockets of Skateboard P’s designer jeans are probably lined with dollar bills from all the producing he does for other A-list artists. And perhaps that’s what makes Seeing Sounds such an uninhibited success- with virtually no commercial expectations to live up to, Pharrell, Neptunes partner Chad Hugo, and rapper-friend Shay Haley combine talents to deliver a new LP bursting with energy and musical experimentation. Seeing Sounds shatters the mould of contemporary urban music by breaking the rules whenever it feels fit. The album drifts in and out of hip-hop, pop, funk, and rock vibes, and does so not only from song to song, but in between cuts as well. The soundscape for the opening song, “Time For Some Action” begins with glass-tapping keys, only to shift to a low, rumbling bass-line, before closing with a synth-heavy backdrop.
Then, on “Sooner Or Later,” N¤E¤R¤D work their magic by opening with a sombre vocal performance by Pharrell, which then takes a back-seat to a killer, electronica-inspired guitar arrangement that kicks in half-way through the song. Even on the standout lead-single “Everybody Nose,” a track laced with throwback horns and up-tempo drums, N¤E¤R¤D add an element of surprise by throwing in a piano-infused bridge to relax the mood, if only for a few seconds. There will be those who gripe about the quality of N¤E¤R¤D’s lyrics, but for the most part, Seeing Sounds overcomes most of the group’s song-writing limitations. Certainly, Pharrell’s lyrics are expectedly-empty (”life is short, and black and white, just like little penguins“), and his vocal ability only reaches so far, but it’s hard to deny the cheesy charisma of Pharrell when he croons about the need for a “Love Bomb” over a classy, strings-heavy beat. And while not every song captures the dynamic energy of the stripped down, rock-infused “Anti-Matter” or the dance-inducing “Spaz,” Seeing Sounds is a concise, entertaining piece of work from front-to-back. With “Yeah You” being the only truly mundane moment on the LP, Seeing Sounds is not only a resounding, envelope-pushing album that oozes fun and excitement, but it is also a shining example of Pharrell at his producing best. And if N¤E¤R¤D’s performance on Seeing Sounds and on Kanye West’s Glow In The Dark Tour are any indication, Chad and Shay seem to be the ideal collaborators for a producer who is displaying a re-found touch for crafting good music.
NY Dailynews Review
N¤E¤R¤D’s music sounds like something thrown together by friends who just sucked up the biggest bong hit of their lives. It’s loose, giggly and busting with jokey asides. So what’s not to like? From the start, the project known as N¤E¤R¤D has served as a giddy release for the hardest working men in pop music – The Neptunes. While the actual duo who make up that harried production team – Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo – take work-for-hire in their Neptunes mode, their albums with N¤E¤R¤D (rounded out by rapper friend Shay) give them the chance to kick back and cook up whatever visions they fancy. As Pharrell himself has famously exclaimed: “The Neptunes is what we do N¤E¤R¤D is who we are.”
While The Neptunes surely have plenty of N¤E¤R¤D in them, only as this alter-ego form do they sound this zany and free. Never has N¤E¤R¤D sounded more so than on “Seeing Sounds,” their third release. It begins with an intro of synths tripping around as the guys talk about “weed brownies” and blanking “the f- out.” From there things just keep getting more silly and sweet. The songs sling together funky bass lines, slamming rock guitars and needling synth hooks, all swirled together with the blurry insouciance of a finger-painting. In “Everyone Nose,” a scratchy hip-hop horn brays over a hard funk beat. “Windows” bats out a rock-funk riff as hot as Prince’s “Kiss,” while the irresistible single “Spaz” matches a knowingly childish rap from Shay to a punk-rock sprawl.
Listeners will need a lot of tolerance for Williams’ faux soul falsetto. Even aided by studio correction, the guy can’t sing – at least not in any conventional sense. But there’s an amateurist thrill to his attempts. It’s bad singing at its engaging best. Compositionally, the group shows the most ambition in the album’s later tracks, which rope in influences from Burt Bacharach to Brit-pop, only to yoke them to things like Zappa-esque backup vocals and Latin percussion. Of course, anything that sounds this blithely tossed-off must have taken a Herculean amount of work. But the cool thing is, it never shows. Instead, “Seeing Sounds” has the flip joy of a group fully engaged in delighted play.
Despite the massive popularity of The Neptunes as a production team, N¤E¤R¤D has never quite gotten equivalent mainstream attention. They’re a band that people are generally aware of, but since they don’t fit neatly into any specific genre, listeners don’t get to their records through radio and TV. Rather, they’re often indoctrinated by one of the band’s modest but committed cult fan base. The good news is that they don’t really care; Chad and Pharrell do more than well enough making hits for others to subsidize their true passion. Like the previous albums, Seeing Sounds is equal part vanity project and fan service. N¤E¤R¤D is theoretically a Rock band, but only for lack of a more accurate descriptor – the music references every major American genre dynamically, not just throughout the album, but also within each song.
While not much on Seeing Sounds is just like it, “Everyone Nose” is a good representative single. It’s Baltimore Club played as art-house Jazz fronted by a pair of MCs that sing in a Punk band on the weekend. “Sooner Or Later” is a polar opposite, beginning as a relaxed piano stroll that suddenly explodes into dense, violent Rock vignette. Elsewhere, “Yeah You” and “You Know What” are smooth and sexy R&B tracks that are the best bridge between N¤E¤R¤D and The Neptunes. Despite being easily digestible, they still retain the same attention to detail as the more complex works; even throwing in a few classic stray effects as nods to the core audience.
The weaknesses in Seeing Sounds are those typical for the band and mostly center on the lyricism, especially when Pharrell and Shae try to cram words into melodies and flows that were decided on beforehand. There are also rare moments where a song’s concept is perhaps more ambitious than the final product (“Anti Matter”), resulting in a crowded track tripping over itself. If you know a hardcore Neptunes fan, at least once, you’ve probably endured a twitchy-eyed lecture criticizing you for not properly understanding their brilliance. He probably cited some supposedly underappreciated N¤E¤R¤D track as proof, and if you were lucky, you managed to say something about “Run To The Sun” to get him off your back. The bad news is that Seeing Sounds will only add to the fanaticism, but the good news is that he’s not completely crazy. If “I’m A Slave 4 U” allows us to have “Spaz,” then The Neptunes had better not quit their day job.