A wasted opportunity to celebrate the best work of Pharrell and friends.
Alex Macpherson 2011
From 1999 to 2003, the imperial phase of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, the Virginian duo did nothing less than reinvent how pop music could sound. As The Neptunes, they were go-to producers who turned the charts, the streets and the clubs into their personal playground: their brand of syncopated digital funk is still instantly recognisable. Even with the shock of the new long dissipated, what leaps out is how easily their best tracks – from Ludacris' Southern Hospitality to Kelis' Milkshake – hit the sweet spot even a decade on.
As N*E*R*D, the idea was that they could push their vision even further outwards, unconstrained by the personalities and demands of the artists for whom they worked. So why is their first best-of compilation such a low-key affair, released without fanfare (not even a token single), barely a couple of months after a similarly under-promoted fourth album? Certainly The Neptunes are no longer the creative force they once were – but one would imagine this would be a prime opportunity to remind the public of how high they raised the bar.
It's hard to avoid connecting that decline with the hubris of the N*E*R*D project, though. Debut single Lapdance was a riot – a ferocious blast of sex and violence, both confrontational and compulsive. The original version of its parent album, In Search Of..., was no let-down, spinning off into psychedelia (Run to the Sun) and rock (Truth or Dare). But each subsequent N*E*R*D album seemed emptier than the last; as a frontman, Williams – who, despite an occasionally sweet falsetto, never exactly brimmed with likeability – proved inadequate to hide the depleting well of ideas.
Appropriately, given their career's state of disrepair, their first compilation appears to have been put together by a bored intern in about an hour: a senselessly sequenced run through tracks gleaned from N*E*R*D's first two albums (their last two are wisely purged from history), one apparently randomly selected Kelis album track and two rote remixes make for a sad listen. To add insult to injury, the ‘real’ versions from In Search Of... are included, rather than the rarer, superior digital originals.
The Best of N*E*R*D is not only pointless, but a wasted opportunity: a thorough compilation of the best of The Neptunes – both their megahits and their forgotten gems by non-canonised artists who never quite made it out of obscurity – would be a tremendous and valuable artefact. One can only hope that someone sees the sense to put this together soon.