at the Riviera, April 8

N*E*R*D’s sophomore release, Fly or Die (Virgin), is a record that could only have been made by somebody who’s got other ways to pay the bills. Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams, aka the superproducer team the Neptunes, play all the instruments themselves, and with their plinky piano chords, rudimentary midtempo drumming, and cute three-note guitar solos they sound like the best campus band in Akron busting out the Joe Jackson covers at last call. Taken as a pop album made by pop stars, it’s frustrating, a million-dollar demo tape. But in its disarming determination, its blatant failure to meet pop standards and practices, its casual but thorough punking of the process, the shit is genius. As the Neptunes these guys have magicked up megahits for everybody from Britney Spears to Kelis; that they have the Midas touch but refuse to deploy it on their own behalf shows a respect for the audience that’s otherwise entirely absent in commercial music.

Williams is best when he sells it with his soft, slightly flat falsetto, like a pubescent Curtis Mayfield–croony and corny. He can’t sing any other way. Mostly he alternates between rapping and panting immoderately, like Jim Carroll with a touch of soul. The single, “Jump,” which (actually) benefits from a cameo chorus by milquetoast TV punks Joel and Benji Madden from Good Charlotte, is jaunty and acrobatic and could have been a number one hit in, say, 1983. It’s a feel-good parents-just-don’t-understand anthem that cites the Magna Carta, briefly genuflects to Billboard-chart pop, then returns to mooning over a photo of Andy Partridge, or maybe that’s a Special Beat poster. Then it’s back to the basement for nine more bare-bones tracks.

While N*E*R*D’s amateurishness can be endearing on record, live at the Riviera last week it was appalling. For the tour they’ve brought back the wonka-wonka-wacky of Spymob, the white Minnesota funk band (doesn’t that say it all?) that played on the U.S. version of their first record. The rhythm section made cartoony we-are-funking-you-Chicago faces at the audience–every solo or fill was like watching someone give birth. They got off two original numbers, and then Williams and hype man Shay came on. Opening with the title cut, Williams stalked the stage, his voice thinner and reedier than it needed to be to put over bon mots like “My dumb-ass girlfriend / Fucked my friend / She’s a ho.”

Over the course of their 35-minute set, Williams humored the audience with props to Chicago, the fine women of Chicago, and the fine asses of the fine women of Chicago. He only briefly took flak from the otherwise wildly enthusiastic young crowd.

Williams: “Y’all got Common!”


“You got Twista!”

More cheers.

“You got DJ and producer No I.D.!”

Dutiful cheers.

“You got R & B number one superstar R. Kelly!”

The boos loudly drowned out the cheers.

Williams continued, undaunted. “You know what all of us–” (motions to audience) “have in common with them?”

A shabby backing band with a duckwalking bass player? Songs in the Billboard Top Ten? Mary J. Blige’s home phone number? Twenty-one counts of child pornography being swept under the rug? No? Do tell.

“We’ve all been fucking hurt!”

But the most surprising thing about the N*E*R*D show wasn’t the bad music or the bad banter. During the last song, “Lapdance”–2002’s grind anthem for the Olsen-twin demographic–Williams took off his shirt and used what God gave him as well as any woman who ever worked the pole at Crazy Horse Too. Then he lifted his arms, and there was the shocker: he was wearing so much deodorant it looked like he’d decorated his armpit hair with Betty Crocker vanilla frosting straight from the tub.

Then (then!), about three-fifths of the way through the song, a big man entered stage right and deposited around Williams’s neck several gold and bejeweled necklaces that, if real, had to be equal in value to the annual GNP of Ghana. I’m not sure why this happened when it did–maybe the guy got tired of holding them, maybe his ride was leaving. Williams walked over to a picnic table that was part of the set dressing, got atop it, gave us the V sign–which was returned by all the kids on date night in attendance–then raised his arms again, giving us a prolonged look at his Santafied pits. It was kind of the last thing you’d expect from someone so . . . gilded. It was humanizing in ways that N*E*R*D failing unspectacularly over the course of their set was not.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lyle A. Waisman.