Hip hop stands as one of the most important influences on current pop music. In the few short years since it became a legitimate musical form in the eyes of white audiences (thanks Lauryn Hill!), hip hop has dominated the musical landscape, and changed pop music drastically. Now metal-heads rap over their blustering guitars, boy bands harmonize over break beats, and high-schoolers are trading in their Fenders for Technics. But perhaps the most profound effect hip hop has had is shining a light on producers. Producers used to be the overlooked bunch of gearheads toiling away at guitar levels and fade-outs and other such periphery, while the songwriter did the actual creative work and the band did the technical stuff. But hip hop relies on deft looping and sampling combined with complementary rapping to work – you don’t even need to write a song.
The public was infatuated with the MCs at first – the equivalent to a rock band’s photogenic lead singer – but inevitably people want to know what’s going into the actual music. It helps that hip hop has continually expanded from a sample-based format, which kept people looking at the sampled sources. Furthermore, the current dearth of skilled MCs (R.I.P. Tupac and Biggie) firmly shifted focus on to the beats. The 21st century granted America its first producer-pop-stars: Timbaland and the Neptunes. Their distinctive beats made instant hits, regardless of what name was attached to them (Missy Elliot, Aaliyah, and Bubba Sparxxx with the former; Mystikal, Noreaga, and finally, Britney Spears and N’Sync with the latter).
Timbaland plants himself firmly in the realm of hip hop, and his solo albums and collaborations support this. But the Neptunes have bigger goals. Chad Hugh and Pharrell Williams have worked their way up from Puff Daddy lackeys all the way to the driving force behind the most recognizable faces in pop. Thus it comes as no surprise that the unavoidable Neptunes solo album runs a gamut of musical styles. The big surprise is how undeniably good the album is. Great, in fact. In Search Of..., released under the moniker N.E.R.D. (No one Ever Really Dies), isn’t even a hip hop album at all. It’s a tightly programmed concept album, conceived on a steady diet of Thriller, heartbreak, and cocaine.
In Search Of... isn’t just an album about cocaine: it’s practically cocaine itself. It’s gaudy, exciting, shallow, and incredibly addictive. Gaudy for flaunting its bevy of musical styles (even though it pulls everything off flawlessly). Exciting because it effortlessly repackages ‘80s disco-funk-cheese into something not only palatable, but desirable. Shallow because the music is totally corrupt and dishonest: the cheap keyboard effects perfectly match Pharrell’s empty pleas and apologies. And finally, addictive because that’s what the Neptunes do best: they hook you and keep you coming back for more. In fact, the album is actually rather unsatisfying in retrospect – joy can only be derived from actually listening to it. It reigns only in the present – the perfect pop music for our disposable age.
The true masters of pop that they are, Pharrell and Chad put the single on the first track, “Lapdance,” a violent ode to low-budget decadence. The buzz-saw synths that open the song are unmistakably Neptunes, but the big surprise comes from the percussion: it’s live. The Neptunes re-recorded In Search Of..., replacing synth drums and guitars with the real thing. It’s a departure from