Saturday 20 March 2021

Fly or Die/ N.E.R.D. (2004): Albums of my Life: An A-Z

...listening to this album for the first time with a boyfriend at university in his tiny room in the halls of residence. I liked what I heard immediately and then bought this a year or two later after we had broke up. You know a person's made a mark on your life in some way if they brought you music.

In the early days of owning this CD, I would dance around the flat that I lived in alone to 'She Wants to Move' and 'The Way She Dances' with reckless abandon.

I think what struck me initially about the album was the fusion of sounds, the contrast of high production value and effects and the unpolished, raw feel of the vocals and guitar at times. I'm no expert, but I know what I sounded like as a teen on my electric guitar and tiny amp; this is obviously way better, but there's a quality to it that sounds humble and young. I saw that Chad Hugo had only been playing the guitar for a year before recording this album as they wanted to play instruments live (including Pharrell on drums), so I felt quite smug with my instincts that this was the case.

N.E.R.D. is a three piece composed of Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo and Shay Haley. The genre is usually noted as rap/hip hop/ rock, which I guess is true because they play guitar/ drums/ keys, but there's some funk and R n B in there. What's so captivating about N.E.R.D. is their experimentation with genre and form. You can go from a melodic, soulful verse to a chorus which becomes a syncopated chant like a battle cry of a generation ('Jump', for example).

Interestingly, I've seen a mix of reviews on this album, with a particularly biting one by Brent DiCrescenzo on Pitchfork who claimed that it was 'stupid and boring' and that 'N.E.R.D. are the hip-hop Toto.' 

I love a bit of 'Africa', so I guess that's why this is right up my alley!
Whether you like Pharrell or not, he has had an enduring career and among many talents he has a killer falsetto! I don't know huge amounts about the band members, Pharrell included because I've never been fanatic about them as individuals. In terms of the more recent Pharrell and N.E.R.D. releases, I haven't listened to a huge amount, maybe because 'Happy' was so overplayed and I moved away from the genre a little as I worked my way through my twenties. However, I have replayed some of the earlier N.E.R.D. albums in recent years and they always give me listening pleasure. I also like 'Deep Down Body Thurst' from 2017's 'No One Ever Really Dies' album (yes, that's what N.E.R.D. stands for.)

The title track, 'Fly or Die' is a tongue in cheek anthem from the perspective of youth. At the age I first heard it, I could relate to the angst of wanting to stand on my own two feet away from hypocrisy and judgement. Now, I just like it for the youthful chaos of it (and I can now smile as I listen a little bit more.)

In addition to the diverse range of songs on the album, there are some hidden tracks which always takes me back to the early days of buying CDs and wondering why there was a minute's gap on the album! At the end of track 7, 'Wonderful Place' is a treasure of interlude called 'Waiting for You'. It tells a story about a lost child on a fishing trip in a simple, beautiful way, like a piece of poetry. Similarly, the final (hidden) track on the album follows another favourite, the psychedelically-lyric-ed 'Chariot of Fire'. 'Find My Way' is haunting and uncanny. Like all art, the beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this, to me is beautiful. 

The motif of space is used throughout Williams and Hugo's previous work with their two-piece, The Neptunes. In their production of Kelis' 'Kaleidoscope', I first got a taste of their sound and quirks. The way that this motif is stamped across this album interests me-- from the vulgar: 'her ass is a spaceship I want to ride', on the ultimately infectious, 'She Wants to Move' to the desperate call of 'I'm lost in space' on the aforementioned final track.

And then there's the album artwork, including the red dog which we see referenced in the music video of 'She Wants to Move'.

The themes of the freedom and anarchy of youth tie this album together which makes the hidden elements rather clever when you think about it. These pared back songs about the potential for pain once you commit yourself to a relationship are hidden for a reason. 'Fly or Die' is an escape from the shackles of parents, society's rules and restrictions; how ironic that as young people we often aim for freedom, only to quickly find ourselves tied down once again.

1. Fly or Die-- the first track I heard off the album
2. Chariot of Fire/ Find my Way-- mesmeric
3. She Wants to Move-- check out the video!

... wanting energy and fun. I listen in the gym quote a lot.

'It won't be long, till you see me on the news!
Another soul lost at sea - while taking a cruise!
Gasping for air makes the righteous path - harder to choose
What if he'd fly or die, sink or swim!
Which one shall I choose?'   ('Fly or Die')

These lyrics must be relatable to most people. The song begins with 'This is only for the kids' which is a great sentiment for the kids who feel they own nothing, and the grown 'kids' who still want to feel like they're kids in some way.

... it'd have to be red, surely? But maybe a slightly darkened red, like blood.

'Fulfillingness' First Finale'/ Stevie Wonder (1974)
'Farewell my Summer Love'/ Michael Jackson (1984)
'Fore!'/ Huey Lewis and the News (1986)
'Fanmail'/ TLC (1999)
'Fleshtone'/ Kelis (2010)

What is your favourite album beginning with F?

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