Pharrell Williams is seated in a large photo studio in Manhattan's West Village surrounded by a gaggle of young women. In between bites of chicken, the notorious ladies' man and leader of experimental avant-funk trio N.E.R.D says to his coterie, “Our new album is called Nothing, because what would we be without women? It doesn't matter if we're white, black, gay, straight, hickory, pinstripe, alien—women are essential to our existence.” Ponytails bob in emphatic agreement.
But N.E.R.D's fourth album, the culmination of Williams' work with bandmates Chad Hugo and Sheldon “Shay” Haley over the past two years, is about more than charming the fairer sex. At times, Nothing sounds like the Beatles after their LSD awakening, and at others like the Doors, all hypnotic vocals and fuzzy guitars. The song “It's in the Air” is a meditation on hate that opens with a tirade courtesy of U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy wherein the congressman attacks media outlets for ignoring the war in Afghanistan. “In the past, we just wanted to be an interesting band,” says Williams, 37. “Now, we want to penetrate culture on a level that changes the way people think.” His choice of words seems telling.
Williams' deliberate shift from playboy to politico is felt all over Nothing, which he approached with a new-found sensitivity to global affairs. “We looked at the war, we looked at commerce, we looked at finance, we looked at the environment,” he says. It's heavy stuff for a band whose inaugural single was called “Lapdance.” But, he adds, smiling, “We also looked at other interesting things, like the new Ferrari. I like a flower as much as I like a Ferrari. If it's under the sun, why do I have to choose just one?”
For Nothing, 27 initial tracks were whittled down to the dozen or so that appear on the mastered album. The ones that got cut weren't “magical,” Hugo says. “They were all great songs,” adds Williams, “but we needed something that will make people go, 'What the fuck was that?' When you hear this music, you're gonna bug out.” Given the underwhelming critical reception of N.E.R.D's last couple offerings, the band had better hope to blow a few minds.
Their last album, Seeing Sounds, received a 4.6 rating out of 10 from influential music website Pitchfork. It was a slight improvement from their previous effort, 2004's Fly or Die, which earned a mere 3.1. Anyone with a fixed-gear bike and a fade knows these aren't good scores. In fact, they're awful. “What's Pitchfork?” asks Williams, with seeming sincerity. After Haley enlightens him, Williams says, “At the end of the day, criticism is distraction. Somebody else will read those reviews and be like, 'Fuck them. They don't know.' We're just lucky to be on their radar.”
Photos par Billy Kidd