N.E.R.D. are nothing if they're not clever, and they brilliantly constructed a back-story to accompany their debut album, In Search Of... As every rock critic in the Western world has said in his review of the album, they originally released the record in Europe, then decided it was crap, withdrew it, re-recorded it with a live band, and then released it worldwide. Now this story is probably true -- as the first album by the band driven by the powerhouse production team the Neptunes (though these are not interchangeable terms, as they went to great lengths to make clear in the promo interviews), there was a lot riding on this record, so it had better be right -- but it certainly helped them get valuable press, elevating this record to a near-event level. So, is In Search Of... worth the hoopla? Well, pretty much. Musically, it's a lively affair, breaking free of the signature approximated-Prince beats, as they borrow heavily from classic soul, breakbeat aesthetics, and postmodern alt-culture, tying it together with live beats. It pretty much deliberately does everything that most modern rap does not do, and it's hard not to embrace it for that very fact. Alas, there are flaws, mainly in the raps, which are hardly as nimble as the music; actually, they're rather clumsy and embarrassing, especially since they attempt to cover "socially relevant" issues (i.e., politicians are equated with strippers). Choruses that croon that "She needs me/Because I'm the sh*t" are hard to stomach, no matter how supple the music is (or how ironic the delivery), but if you can ignore that, In Search Of... does provide genuine musical thrills. Although, be forewarned -- it's easy to overrate this record simply because it deviates from the norm at a time when nobody deviates from the norm or has deviated from the norm in years. With better lyrics and a little less smirking hipsterism, it could have been the record it was intended to be, but as it stands, it's still a pretty terrific listen and one of the most adventurous, intriguing hip-hop albums in a long, long time.
© Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo