Given their massive success as the radio-friendly producing team the Neptunes, it's refreshing that Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo continue to create their own quirky, less commercially minded records. The first N.E.R.D. album, 2002's "In Search of. . .," was adored by critics but ignored by the public, especially when compared with their chart-topping productions for Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, and Busta Rhymes. Still, that hasn't deterred Williams, Hugo, and their pal Shay from exploring the far reaches of their musicality. It's a combination platter of styles -- rock, soul, new wave -- everything, it seems, except hip-hop. With his flailing falsetto, Williams handles the lead vocals, and what he lacks in ability, he more than makes up for with daring, enthusiasm, and lyrical unpredictability. Cheery '60s-pop harmonies accent "Drill Sergeant," but don't miss the pointed antiwar lyrics beneath the candy coating. That's a recurring theme -- real messages wrapped in toe-tapping, ear-pleasing melodies. "Wonderful Place," a soulful mini-epic with a soothing chorus -- "My soul's in my smile, don't frown, just get up, get up" -- segues into the harrowing tale of a family fishing trip that almost goes fatally awry. It's not all serious -- there's the sexed-up "She Wants to Move" and "Backseat Love." But at its best, N.E.R.D. is more concerned with making us think than with shaking our booties.
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