Five years ago, Pharrell Williams was the go-to man for any pop musician seeking hipness-by-association. The Neptunes, his production team with Chad Hugo, created seven tracks for Justin Timberlake’s massive debut album, Justified, and N.E.R.D., their rock-oriented side project, met with resounding critical praise.
These days, Williams’s career is in need of a Vitamin-B shot (preferably administered from the same bag of syringes that Madonna used to help Timberlake get over a cold during recording sessions for her Hardy Candy album). He’s been eclipsed on the charts by the likes of Timbaland and Scott Storch; his 2006 solo debut, In My Mind, was a puzzling dud; and N.E.R.D.’s thunder has been stolen by the similarly eclectic, hip-hop-meets-indie-rock hybrid of Gnarls Barkley.
That raises the stakes for Seeing Sounds, the third N.E.R.D. album., beyond the moonlighting lark this project has always felt like. Williams, Hugo, and sidekick Shea hobble out of the gate with the self-aggrandizing intro to “Time for Some Action” and the crass hectoring of “Everyone Nose,” a cocaine joke featuring the tiresome refrain: “All the ladies standing in the line for the bathroom.”
Before long, however, Williams and Hugo find their footwork with a series of knockout grooves that resist easy classification. “Windows” has a stop-start rock-guitar riff and a hilarious “doe-doe-doe” backing vocal. “Yeah You” glides by on the strength of its electro-castanet hook, while “Happy” and “You Know What” take disco into the realm of pop psychedelia.
Williams is a soft-voiced singer and unconvincing rapper, and his lyrics come down to affirmations of positivity and rejections of destructive “killjoys” and self-pitying neurotics. What he and Hugo have to offer are visionary soundscapes (hence the album’s title) and on this album they sound fresher than they have in years. In fact, this album builds so much momentum over its second half, you won’t even mind that “Sooner or Later” is directly swiped from Tears for Fears’ “Sowing the Seeds of Love.”