In Search Of…. N.E.R.D’s Debut Album
As the new millennium was starting takeoff, production duo and longtime friends, Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams, better known as The Neptunes (now Songwriter Hall of Famers) would quickly rise to mainstream prominence becoming one of the most sawed after producers of the decade. Though 10 years prior, under the wing of New Jack Swing legend Teddy Riley joining in on production and songwriting throughout the 90s. However, it wasn’t until the year 2000 being when the two friends would create the sound for the rest of the decade, in Pop, Hip-Hop, and R&B. Producing several of the hits of the year including “Girls Dem Suga” by Beenie Man & Mya, “I Just Wanna Luv U” by longtime collaborator Jay-Z, “Southern Hospitality” by Ludacris, and “Shake Ya Ass” by Mystikal, helping to set up the blueprint for them to work on their next project, combing their genre-spanning sound, sense of individuality that bleeds into their on-camera presence and music. Joined by another high school friend Shay Hayley, the three friends would become known as N.E.R.D. and released their signature album, “In Search Of”.
As an acronym for No One Ever Really Dies, the hip-hop and funk-rock band was formed in 1999. The meaning of the name comes from inspiration from the Buddha philosophy he once claimed: ” matter can never come from non-matter, and consciousness can never come from non-consciousness….there was a scientific basis for the principle of rebirth because in the material world, everything we can observe transforms. Trees die and they turn into soil, the soil might run into the sea, the sea could evaporate into clouds, et cetera. So nothing disappears.”. In an interview with Dmitri Ehrlich from 2010, Pharrell elaborated on the concept of the name after being asked if that was his intention of the name:” That is what I meant, for sure, one hundred percent. I’m not sure what happens before you get here or when you leave, but I know that while we are here, we are these animate, mobile beings, and there’s certainly electricity flowing through our bodies”. Coming together in high school while Pharrell and Chad were friends since the age of 12, the three would click together through their connection of music. Constantly meeting in Chad’s garage for Jam Sessions while Shay was a dancer for the music. However, Pharrell and Hugo would put the project on hold until 99, due to them gaining away in the music industry. In 99, the trio would make their debut on close collaborator Kelis’s “Kaleidoscope” album for the track “Ghetto Children” (the entire LP was produced by the Neptunes as well). As 2000 became the breakout year for the Neptunes, the duo decided to return to their side project for the next year.
With more electronic influences, the N.E.R.D would approach would their debut album than they do when they work as the Neptunes. In an interview, from 2002 Pharrell explained the difference between the Neptunes and N.E.R.D.: “When we’re the Neptunes, there’s a job to be done, N.E.R.D, we’re powerless and just a regular person. We’re inspired the regular thing we do every day”. Stripping away the jewelry Pharrell would become known for, to Tackle themes of politics, social injustice, love (Run to the Sun), and telling the story of a dealer (Provider), content-wise, In Search Of, highlights the common man the N.E.R.D. represents, with many solid songwriting highlights. For instance, the lead single and album opener, Lapdance, comes off as a stripper sex song (especially when taking in the context of the video of you see N.E.R.D and the Star Trak affiliate’s in a brothel surrounded by strippers and escorts ) with a nice accessible sound (being used in movie trailers and commercials) yet, when reading in-between the lines it is more intricate and very political. As it compares the lies of politicians to the lies of strippers and how “corruption and lies incite violence”, which can over peoples head as they may forget to listen to the lyrics as Pharrell says:
“It’s so real how I feel
Cause this society, that makes a nigga wanna kill
I’m just straight ill, ridin’ my motorcycle down the streets
While politicians is soundin’ like strippers to me
They sayin’, but I don’t wanna hear it”
In an interview with Mike D of the Beastie Boys, Pharrell elaborated on the video and why he chose the final video that seems to distract from the message of the song: “What we have to do to emote different kinds of emotional awareness, we have to show them titties and ass, that’s how you get their attention…But meanwhile while they’re singing the song subconsciously, he’s singing it and not realizing I’ve already got him now, he’s singing my lyrics about how the government is kinda fucked up and you need to take a new look at it. And politics is kinda fucked up and needs to be evaluated you need to get more involved”. He continues to explain the concept and reasoning behind Lapdance video: “When MTV first gets this video cause of statistics, cause we had hits on the charts, I don’t give a fuck about that. Just play it and then when you read the lyrics then they’ll realize why they should put this behind Your Right To Vote Commercial and that’s what I get a kick out of.”
The visuals for the three singles also have one motif: BMX & Skate culture. Lapdance, Provider, and Rockstar feature plenty of scenes and shots of the band giving light to the cultures and scenes they grew up in, whether it be them BMXing or others. When they weren’t making music as teens, they were skating or BMXing. When they weren’t working on the album they were BMXing and skating on the streets. Pharrell in a 2002 “Without hip-hop, where’s skating? Without BMXing, where’s rock music?”. Where Chad adds: “As a child, all you saw was kids in the middle of the streets on Bikes & Skateboard”. The album cover also goes to the point of how N.E.R.D. are “two different identities” and regular people from the Neptunes. As the In Search Of… cover is Shay on a couch playing a PS1 in a living room, whereas compared to the next year The Neptunes Presents….Clones cover is Pharrell and Chad in outer space with a world between the two. Everyday people vs the duo who gets the job done.
Released on August 6, 2001, In Search Of… walked into welcoming reviews, as NME and other publications gave it positive reviews. An NME review said: “In Search Of is a producers album in the best sense, showcasing the personal and lyrical over flashy technique”. However, the album was released only in Europe, now known as the “Electronic Version”, and would get a worldwide release in the following year with a new approach. Pharrell and Chad wanted to give the album a different sound for the new version they were working on, so they stripped away the electronic sound from the previous album and instead added more live instrumentation working with the band Spymon, with every song adopting new heavy drums and guitar giving it a more funk-rock sound. Which in turn gives the tracks different energy, compare the 2001 version of Rockstar and the 2002 version. This decision emphasized the bands’ drive to evolve musically and never stick to one idea. Adding to the new stylistic music choice, they omitted 3 skits and the intro that was previously on the electronic version. With a new sound and omitted tracklist, the 2002 “In Search Of” (also known as the Rock Version) to fair reviews as well.
While it may not be the most overt impacting album in the vein of The Chronic, 36 Chambers, College Dropout, or Madvillainy. However, as it reaches its 20th Anniversary, the album has developed its legacy with somewhat of a cult following. As another intricate part of Pharrell’s legacy, In Search Of… has gotten plenty of fans over the years, one notable fan is Tyler, the Creator.
Who, on a few occasions has expressed his gratitude for the LP, once tweeting the album “is the greatest album of all time”. From giving it a quick nod on his song Colossus: “We could play Xbox and listen to In Search Of’ and an interview with Power 106, he stated after hearing the album he has “been a stan” of Pharrell, the Neptunes, etc. In Search Of might not be Illmatic, but as time has gone, whether directly or indirectly helped shaped the future of alternative hip-hop and hip-hop artists. Giving the blueprint for ASAP Rocky and his album Testing and Tyler, the Creator, and his entire catalog. Being released in the Big Pimpin’ and Bling Era lead by many, In Search Of is an album that stands in a category on its own. Blending sounds and genres, to show hip-hop can be more than we think it can or should be. While giving it the green light for people to accept themselves as nerds who appreciate funk, BMXing, and Skate culture, and Harmony Korine films (who Pharrell wanted to direct an N.E.R.D.video) in a time where throwback jerseys and chains were the norms for being cool. Reminding us all that most importantly, No ever really dies.