The new release, No_One Ever Really Dies, is a return to form for N.E.R.D. It’s their most political and ambitious album to date, and for Pharrell it heralds a particularly candid incarnation for the man who chirpily encouraged us in 2013 to “clap along” if we felt like “happiness is the truth”. Perhaps back then we were more cheerful? Three years after Happy, the UK’s best-selling single of 2014 (more than 1.9m physical sales to date) and the world feels like an overload of sadness: a mess of Trump and Weinstein, terror threats, police brutality, economic uncertainty and ecological disasters. The question: “Why the politics now, Pharrell?” elicits a simple, if frustratingly vague response: “If not now, when? If not me, who?” he says.
It is a bold new direction for the band, who rarely made social consciousness central to their music, even if N.E.R.D’s very presence was political in itself. Formed in 1999, the trio were critical for a wave of pioneering modern artists such as Frank Ocean and Tyler, The Creator (such is the latter’s adoration of the group, he compared being introduced to Pharrell as “meeting God” in 2011. “That’s my hero,” he said). With N.E.R.D’s distinct musical and sartorial style – which was always more skater boy than rap star – they inspired a whole generation who were drawn to their individuality and oddness, defying the cultural stereotypes that were imposed on them elsewhere.
While their legacy lived on via other artists, however, after the critical success of their first two albums – In Search Of … and Fly Or Die – 2008’s Seeing Sounds and 2010’s Nothing were met with indifference. What happened? “EDM came in,” says Shae when we meet. “We had some internal issues. It was a dark time creatively.”
Even Pharrell admits that they hated the later work. “I mean look at the fucking title: Nothing,” he groans. “That’s when we started losing ourselves. The label wanted uptempo records and we acquiesced. I was super-depressed. It was a tough fucking time.” Instead, Pharrell went off and became a massive pop star in his own right, Chad continued to produce for the likes of Earl Sweatshirt and the Internet, while Shay managed a couple of local acts from Virginia. For seven years, they weren’t ready to return to N.E.R.D. “It was tough but you need those times,” Pharrell reflects. “When you fall, it’s not only how and when you get up, but it’s about really looking at yourself. It was a dark time, but I feel like we’re in the middle of the sun right now.”
Two weeks after the London playback, I meet Williams in the bowels of the Long Beach Convention Center in Los Angeles. He’s here for a performance at ComplexCon, a two-day festival and exhibition featuring streetwear, art, food, performances and panels. It is attended by thousands of kids buying limited-edition tees and rappers including Rick Ross and Migos. ComplexCon is so star-studded that barely anyone even mentions the sight of a bearded André 3000 in a lift.
Pharrell, his hair today painted bright orange, is wearing a pop star-style oversized leather jacket and huge sunglasses. We retire to a trailer in the artists’ compound where Pharrell’s wife, Helen Lasichanh, hangs out with their eldest son, Rocket. Chad and Shae float about, too, although Pharrell does the heavy lifting. In fact, Chad rarely speaks. When we briefly meet later after N.E.R.D’s live performance he’s barely audible, offering up a string of strange noises to explain what the album is about. “The impetus [to re-form] was Pharrell playing us some fantastic, like, cosmic synths,” Hugo says before miming the sounds. “It felt good. Real positive.” He wanders off to get a beer.
For much of our conversation Pharrell’s eyes are closed in contemplation. He can be a tricky interviewee, one-on-one; throughout the interview, replies are little more than wistful “hmm”s. He often asks for things to be repeated. (At one point, when I ask if he paints, he wonders if it might somehow be a trick question. It isn’t.) Our chat quickly moves on to Lemon, written originally for Puff Daddy, he admits, before Rihanna had a go, hence the pair posting the song’s lyrics on Instagram back in 2015. The song finally ended up as the album’s lead single, a fitting sequitur for the sonic experimentation to come. Pharrell tells me he borrowed the opener, “The truth will set you free/ But first it’ll piss you off”, from Gloria Steinem. It’s a phrase attributed to her from a speech she gave in 1998. Much like on his 2014 solo album GIRL, feminism is very much at the forefront of his mind.
Earlier this year he and Lasichanh, a former model and designer, had triplets, and watching her carry his children forced Pharrell to view his wife, and womankind, with an entirely new lens (although when recently asked whether or not he changed his three babies’ nappies the answer was a simple “No”). “Every single person outta 7 billion people on this earth came through the conduit of the woman’s body. I’m telling you, my respect for womankind is a different thing,” he says.
This, and perhaps the ever-evolving conversation in a post-Weinstein world, have caused the group to consider their own previous songwriting. Much of N.E.R.D’s early music seemed to be solely about strippers and sex; however, Shae claims 2001’s Lapdance was far more socially conscious. Buried beneath the breathy “Ooh baby you want me” refrain was some real rage: “It’s so real/ How I feel/ ’Cause this society/ That makes a nigga wanna kill.”
“Lapdance was a metaphor about politics, we just wrote it in a fun way,” Shae tells me. “I think that’s one of the beauties about the band: we have an innate gift to shine a light on real issues juxtaposed with the music.” Other Pharrell lyrics – such as his solo track Can I Have It Like That released in 2006 – were a little more juvenile (and let’s not forget that Pharrell did, after all, pen the lyrics to THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL SONG OF THE DECADE, Blurred Lines). He is under no illusion that his back catalogue is a bastion of righteousness and radicalism, however, and he’s ready to hold his hands up. “I’ve made all kinds of songs in my career,” he says. “People might say: ‘Oh what about this song?’ Yep, you’re right. I recognise now. I get it. It was fun to me at the time, but the earth changes and the rules change. We have to remember that. Context is important.”
He also remains baffled that women were once denied the vote and now wants them to rule the world. “Imagine if it were women’s fingertips that had access to all of the nuclear codes around the world. Women know on a physical level what it takes to bring a life into this world. They deliver the message of life. So they’re gonna think twice before they press that button. It would be awesome to see women in control for once. We’ve seen what men do. They blow shit up. Not all of them, but the ones who don’t haven’t yet figured out how to stop the ones who are into the destructive nature.”
He stops. “Women and millennials, man, I’m telling you they have the power. That’s where I think the change is gonna come for this country.” He’s on a roll. “A man can say whatever it is that he wants, but he can’t do what women can do, period. [Men] will never understand what a woman goes through. She goes through something that men could never understand, every month, and still she shows up at her job, does her job, like ain’t nothing ever happened. Period. It’s unbelievable.” Period, literally, I exclaim. “Your words,” he politely points out.
The origins of N.E.R.D really started in Virginia Beach, where Chad and Pharrell met aged 12 at Kempsville, an after-school programme for gifted kids. As teenagers, they found themselves around influential local producers such as Teddy Riley (for whom Pharrell wrote Rump Shaker) and Timbaland and Missy Elliott. They did talent shows and then formed a band with two other friends. For a period they were called D.R.U.G.S – Doing Righteous Under God’s Surveillance. Thankfully they ditched that name, becoming The Neptunes – a production line for pop stars – while N.E.R.D became their passion project, a band that could experiment without the confines of commercial expectation. Their 2001 debut, In Search Of … was far more inspired by the cosmos than the brutal realities of Earth that they now explore. The name was a nod to Spock actor Leonard Nimoy.
For many years, N.E.R.D and The Neptunes dictated the charts, shooting pop and rap into the stratosphere with esoteric 808s and otherworldly synth patterns. As The Neptunes, the pair made hits for everyone from Kelis (Milkshake) and Jay-Z (Frontin’) to Justin Timberlake (Like I Love You), Britney Spears (I’m a Slave 4 U) and Snoop Dogg (Drop It Like It’s Hot). N.E.R.D, more punk rock in practice, had perhaps less commercial, but certainly as much critical success, with tracks such as Lapdance, Rock Star, Provider, She Wants To Move and Everyone Nose.
Pharrell says the new record was inspired by everything from Gang of Four and Alan Vega to early electro; its songs are definitely full of unexpected turns. “You never quite know what’s going to happen next,” he says. “I want you to be shocked and exhilarated.” The album’s political leanings are cemented by the appearance of Kendrick Lamar on two tracks. He’s heard first on Don’t Don’t Do It, described by Pharrell as the centerpiece of the record. It is about the fatal shooting by police of Keith Scott in North Carolina in 2016.
“This was something I saw on the news. We have that crazy, crazy man [running the country] but also they have police that shoot unarmed black people the whole time. It rains and they shoot black people,” he says of the song that shares its musical DNA with OutKast’s Hey Ya. “I hid the story in something that’s so jubilant because that way you won’t miss the message.’’ Lamar appears again alongside MIA on Kites, a timely comment on Trump’s bans and walls. The album also features appearances from André 3000, Future and Ed Sheeran, singing in a questionable accent.
Having been so open during the London playback, Pharrell is noticeably more cautious when talking on the record about Trump or politics. Careful, probably, not to be misquoted. Wary, perhaps, that being explicitly outspoken might affect his life and that of his wife and children. When the tape recorder is turned off, he talks at length about why this record is important. The shades come off. He asks if I have listened to the US national anthem – and that I check out the third verse. This, he says, will help me understand where he’s coming from. The third verse is widely read as a celebration of slavery. Although it’s no longer sung in schools or at sporting events, its very existence speaks to the systematic racial injustices in his country. Its very existence, Pharrell insists, means athletes must continue to “take the knee”, because racism is inherent, ingrained in the very heart of the American conscience.
He may not have a pitch to kneel on, but he has a platform that encourages discourse and revolution. He sees so much potential in the country and, though he ducks his head when I wonder if he might enter politics one day, he seems certain that he wants to do his bit, which comes out in the music. N.E.R.D’s very presence remains a symbol of passion, perseverance and ingenuity for a generation. “This isn’t music,” Pharrell decides. “It’s a movement.”