Kanye West’s Glow in the Dark tour wasn’t his most recent tour, but it might’ve been his most era-defining. Along with West and his massive, anthropomorphized spaceship, the tour was stacked with supporting artists that both pointed towards pop’s future and embodied the complexities of modern-day hip-hop and R&B. Nas and Santigold joined on a few dates, and the core lineup was even more impressive: you had Rihanna, who was just starting to canonize herself as pop royalty while touring off of the previous year’s Good Girl Gone Bad; Lupe Fiasco was there, too, riding high off the impressive one-two punch of 2006’s Lupe Fiasco’s Food and Liquor and the following year’s Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool.
Then, there was N.E.R.D. – the ultra-hybridized band co-fronted by Pharrell and Chad Hugo, who made great production hay throughout the 2000s as the unstoppable duo the Neptunes. When I was taking my seat at New York City’s famed Madison Square Garden venue for the show, N.E.R.D. was in full swing onstage, throwing curveball after curveball. To wit: after running through the stomping “Everybody Nose (All the Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom),” from their just-released third album Seeing Sounds, they launched into a cover of… the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” And a lack of Jack and Meg White be damned, it sounded pretty awesome, too.
Seeing Sounds represented what could be considered the platonic ideal of N.E.R.D.’s mission statement, or lack thereof: since the full-band beginnings of Pharrell and Hugo’s impressive 2001 debut In Search Of…, the project has more or less existed as a rage room for creative expression – not so much throwing shit at a wall to see what sticks and more testing the limitations of both the shit and the wall itself. Sometimes this approach has yielded amazing results, and sometimes it hasn’t – and Seeing Sounds, like N.E.R.D.’s other albums to date, features both sides of that creative divide, with even its furthest misses existing as truly singular when it comes to trying to guess what was going on in the creators’ minds while putting it together.
The album’s title refers to the sensual phenomenon of synesthesia. Those who experience it literally see a visual representation of sound – an experience that Pharrell rhapsodizes on in the opening seconds of “Intro/Time For Some Action,” which features (of all people) Swedish rockers the Hives: “I’ll never forget, I was like 7 years old. I closed my eyes, and that’s when it started. I started seeing sounds.” Beyond the synesthesiac connection, it’s a fitting opening to an album that is gloriously consumed with juvenalia; there’s the questionable maturity represented in the coke-snorting chants of “Everybody Nose,” but also the literal children’s fable of Little Red Riding Hood recounted in the opening lines of “Kill Joy.”
Indeed, N.E.R.D.’s lyrical content has long been known to raise eyebrows, and not always in a positive way: “Windows,” with its tale of spying on a woman through her window as she undresses, is at the very least a prescient precursor to the similar horndog-isms of “Hunter,” from Pharrell’s 2014 solo album G I R L. Those who have never experienced synesthesia often (and justifiably) wonder with a level of skepticism as to what it’s really like, or if the phenomenon even exists at all – and a similar question emerges when listening to Seeing Sounds or, by extension, pretty much any N.E.R.D. album: What’s going on in these guys’ heads when they’re making this music?
In its own way, though, this quixotic reaction many listeners have had to N.E.R.D.’s music is its own virtue – and anyway, in the genre-flattening streaming climate of 2018, Seeing Sounds has retained its pure sonic radicality while also coming across as predictive of a near future in which jazzy guitars can hang with distorted beats, and smooth funk breaks can be adorned with nursery-rhyme vocal cadences. The clattering fuzz of “Anti Matter” segues effortlessly into the ratcheted-up synths of “Spaz,” while the heavenly-sounding melodic passages of “Sooner or Later” are something of a taster for the straightforward guitar rock of “Happy.” There’s a method to this madness, even if it takes a little bit of time to understand it.
I’m 30 (hold your applause, please), and a lot of younger people I’ve spoken to over the last five years have cited N.E.R.D. and Pharrell’s work as specific creative inspiration – alongside other do-anything-be-everything artists like Tyler, the Creator (who also counts as a fan of N.E.R.D.) and Kid Cudi. I’ll admit to not getting the love at first, but I think I do now: N.E.R.D. have always stood to inspire those who want to follow their strongest, strangest instincts but don’t know the first thing about how. We all have our own visions, and N.E.R.D.’s are unique beyond explanation – and as any synesthesiac would tell you, if you could see it, you would understand.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2018.