Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' Meets Dance Punk: Inside N.E.R.D's Comeback Concert And New Album
As fans entered the Long Beach Convention Center Arena for N.E.R.D’s first official reunion show in three years, there was anticipation about what the show was going to be. Of course they were going to play new material but would they take the time to satisfy their day ones and play tracks from In Search Of, Fly Or Die, or Seeing Sounds? Would there be a full band? Would there be any guest appearances?
Short answer, no. The beloved trio made up of Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo, and Shae Haley, was a fully immersive album listening party dubbed as a performance. Sure, a little misleading, but in a way it fits with the N.E.R.D ethos — defying one’s expectations and creating something beyond what we could’ve possibly imagined.
Once the lights dimmed a screen at the front of the stage lit up, a pre-programmed robotic voice uttering the words “No One Ever Really Dies Track 1 — Deep Down Body Thrust.”
The background then changed to a dark sky filled with stars as the silhouettes of Williams, Hugo, and Haley were now visible onstage. Initially, it seemed as if the trio was performing the track but it quickly became obvious that wasn’t the case. Still, “Deep Down Body Thrust” was a welcoming return for N.E.R.D, the track driven by a pounding four-on-the-floor unlike anything from previous albums.
Then, track two — “Lemon” featuring Rihanna. Once the track kicked in the show became a full-fledged dance party, as backup dancers danced on top of prop cars placed throughout the floor of the arena. When “Lemon” first dropped I was disappointed, an underwhelming track that should’ve been titled “Lemon” featuring N.E.R.D instead of the other way around. But hearing it in a live setting made me a fan, because I finally understood what that song is trying to convey on a very core level — chaos, freedom, catharsis. The production is such a wild flurry of sounds but at its core maintains this punk swagger that arguably is the common thread that brings together each and every N.E.R.D project.
Also, “Lemon” wouldn’t be what it is without dancer Mette Towley. If you thought the video was great witnessing her perform that choreography live while also experimenting with it really brought the track to life. From there, the listening party went on: track three “Voila” featuring Gucci Mane and Wale; track four “1000” featuring Future; and track five “Don’t Don’t Do It” featuring Kendrick Lamar.
Prior to performing this track Williams took the time to explain its conception, saying that he was inspired by the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina. The shooting was caught on camera by Scott’s wife Rakeyia Scott; in the video you can hear her say “Keith, don’t do it,” which she later clarified was directed at police officers but she said Scott’s name so he could hear her.
“She’s talking to the police…she’s watching her husband going to die,” Williams said. There was a poignancy that came over the arena that surely none of us expected but I still applauded Williams for taking the time to specifically explain this song (the only one he took the time to talk about the entire night). But even more I appreciated the juxtaposition of “Don’t Don’t Do It,” that in its addressing of police brutality across the country (it also highlights other police killings and shootings by referencing the cities and states they occur in) there’s the powerful rallying cry of the song’s title in its chorus.
Following that was track six “Kites” featuring Lamar and M.I.A.; track seven “ESP”; track eight “Lightning Fire Magic Prayer”; and track nine “Rollinem 7’s” featuring Andre 3000. Obviously, anything that Andre 3000 touches at this point is a rarity, especially considering his hesitation in doing anything music-related at this point in his life. But here it’s a reminder why so many fans consider him one of the greatest to ever rap, his malleability on full display in this upbeat track driven by pulsating, bouncy bass.
Following the performance of the album’s last two songs, track 10 “Lifting You” featuring Ed Sheeran and track 11 “Secret Life Of Life Tigers, Williams addressed the crowd and thanked them for being so supportive throughout the years.
“Every bit of the time that you guys have given us our entire careers we owe it to you guys. You’re always there for us,” he said. “This album was for you guys. And all of this life onstage now because no one ever really dies.”
N.E.R.D then concluded its set by playing “Lemon” three times in a row. No_One Ever Really Dies sounded good for a first listen. A part of that was the detail the trio put into bringing the album to life at this year’s ComplexCon, the spectacle reminiscent of Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 3 Fashion Show (even more fitting considering the dancers were wearing N.E.R.D and Adidas’ collaborative track suit). The entire show felt abrasive but cathartic; dystopian but utopian; and slightly political, a psychedelic flurry of images and sounds that was wildly enthralling.
In time we’ll all be able to see where it ranks among their other albums but it’s safe to say that a N.E.R.D comeback has been well worth the wait, the post-genre provocateurs creating a project that finds them returning to their roots while bringing in artists from different musical territories to create something undeniably refreshing.