It feels clichéd to describe any album as ‘politically charged’ in 2017. Art is supposed to reflect reality and it would take a particularly self-involved artist not to at least reference the current political state of flux we find ourselves in. For once, this term doesn’t feel like an overstatement when describing N.E.R.D.’s latest album. Coming a full 7 years after ‘Nothing’, ‘No_One Ever Really Dies’ isn’t satisfied with simply trying to reflect the times – it wants to change them. The effect is an album that feels like an attempt to jolt the public from its collective slumber and into the action Pharrell and Co clearly feel they’re capable of.
This is dangerous territory for any artist. However much fans may say they want their favourite artists to speak directly to them, people remain extremely resistant to direct orders of any sort. It’s true that it’s always better to say something calming to an angry person than to tell them to ‘calm down’. Similarly, from an artistic perspective, suggestion is always preferable to coercion if you’re trying to influence how people think.
N.E.R.D. pay no heed to this. From the very start, ‘No_One Ever Really Dies’ is on a mission for change. Lemon‘s opening statement of “The truth will set you free but first it will piss you off” sets the tone for this endeavour. Rihanna may be more interested in taking pot-shots at the paparazzi but Pharrell has set his sights on the presidency. Lightning, Fire, Magic, Prayer makes direct references to the folly of Trump supporters and Don’t Don’t Do It tackles the police shooting of Keith Scott. Rollinem 7s also seeks to address race relations and ends with a particularly memorable verse from Andre 3000.
The education of ‘No_One Ever Really Dies’ doesn’t end here. Pharrell isn’t content with addressing what you think, but wants to change how you think too. ESP is an effort to influence people’s self-talk (“You’ve got so much brain but you ain’t gonna use it”) and Voila feels similarly so, but this time aimed at an other half (“Some motivation to get you up / you can lift your butt without it being touched”). N.E.R.D. aren’t afraid to get preachy and Pharrell doesn’t sound like he’s in any mood for apologies either.
The sound of ‘No_One Ever Really Dies’ also feels like a reaction to the time. It sounds like it’s been made purposefully to jar. 1000 is perhaps the greatest example of this. It’s a big beat track filled with colour clashing sounds even before the extremely trebly synth kicks in at around two minutes. There are few exceptions over the course of these 11 tracks. The levels of repetition on Rollinem 7s get grating by the second listen and it is only retrospectively saved by Andre 3000’s guest turn. Similarly, the refrain of “Don’t do it, Don’t don’t do it” on (you guessed it) Don’t Don’t Do It already sounds tired by the time the second chorus comes around.
There are moments when this album isn’t preaching or repetitive, but these are brief. ‘No_One Ever Really Dies’ is a record that is designed to be destructive. It’s clearly trying to cause a reaction – and in that it is successful – but the only problem is the sentiments it creates are overwhelmingly negative. This may be surprising for an album that tries to fill itself with positivity, but its always better to ask someone to feel something than to tell them.