Two N.E.R.Ds of a Feather
“Soon or later sides gon’ switch
You know Johnny got that itch
How many more of us gotta see the coroner?
Slain by the same badge, stop, wait, brake, fast!”
Don’t, Don’t Do it, N.E.R.D, 2017
In triumphant fashion, N.E.R.D (No One Ever Really Dies) returns after a nearly decade long hiatus with a self-titled album: a splice of samples, voices, and stories tied together with thoughtful, expert producing. To those unfamiliar with N.E.R.D’s signature sound, the newest installment from this reborn group is spellbinding. The majority of the album is built on a heartbeat of repetitive, invigorating lyrics. The rousing pound of bass lining each track is hypnotizing. The work of the visual artist, Nina Chanel Abney, is just as defiant and inviting. Abney’s style strikes me as the love child of what I thought were irreconcilable voices: her works retain the terse, ALL-CAPS text style that was popularized by artists like Barbara Kruger while still managing to craft quiet, if not contemplative, scenes and moods reminiscent of Jacob Lawrence. Both N.E.R.D and Nina Chanel Abney have created works with particular pop-culture savvy and chromatic intensity. But what’s more is that both have succeeded in creating art that doesn’t sacrifice clarity of message for the sake of aesthetics. Abney as well as N.E.R.D have used their works as proof that resistance can be nothing short of commanding even if it’s eccentric: especially if it’s eccentric. After listening through N.E.R.D’s latest release and looking at some of Abney’s newest works, it seems like they really are two sides of the same canvas.
Since N.E.R.D’s birth in 1999, Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo, and Shay Haley have put their fingers in just about every high energy genre. Their music blends R&B, House, Rock, and, in this newest album, hints of Bounce: a southern blend of Hip Hop native to New Orleans. N.E.R.D’s entire discography is colored with the tell-tale rebelliousness of punk and rap. Bars styled with the brevity and wisdom of motivational speakers sprout from the spacey funk ballads. “Lemon,” the track that revs up the N.E.R.D joyride, begins with a frank message: “The truth will set you free. But first, it’ll piss you off.” From there on, the album launches into an entrancing blend of psychadelictronic-punk-rap: genre-fusing, hair-raising, and never failing to pull you into a body-rolling groove with an unrelenting beat.
Similarly, Nina Chanel Abney’s works cover a range of themes and mix artistic styles. The cartoonish aesthetic of her work (often murals or comic-like panels) masters a sense of earnest storytelling. Abney creates diverse narratives that are visceral and clear while using very little text. It’s hard to find a theme Abney hasn’t captured; her art covers religion, sex, racism, gender, love. What’s even more difficult is figuring out how exactly she manages to paint these images with equal parts brashness and affection. Perhaps in the candor of it all, the beautiful and unsettling become one and the same.
Both N.E.R.D’s newest album, and Nina Chanel Abney’s most recent works are unapologetic declarations of dissent. Nina Chanel Abney’s first solo exhibition in the Nasher Museum, Royal Flush, primarily relied on spray paint as a medium, a clear nod to the rebellious culture of Graffiti artists. Similarly, N.E.R.D is a work of protest. Nearly every song packs a jab, or rather, a roundhouse kick, aimed at the police state, Trump, sexism, homophobia, and other threats to artistic and physical identity alike. In the words of Travis Scott on his own rowdy, rapturous 2016 work Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight: “We ain’t sendin’ shots, we launchin’ missiles.” Tucked in the carefree progressions of block party melodies are razor sharp criticisms of a variety of topics. Caught in the thick of “Lemon”’s “bouncin’ around, bouncin around bouncin’,” I missed the dead-serious lines “Hunt me down like the CIA” and “Hate! Don’t drink the Kool-Aid, my friends. Hate! I tried to tell y’all about this dude” until my third and fourth listens. Nina Chanel Abney is no more keen on mincing words. Her works are stamped with candid truisms and responses: “FUCK THE COP,” “TWERK, NO” or “SHIT HAPPENS”. Halfway through N.E.R.D’s album, I started to think of the group as Afrofuturism’s electronic cousin. Time and again, I noticed that cosmic calls to “Contemplat[e] time and space” were paired with reflections on black self-determination, such as Pharrell insisting: “It’s what possessed the slave to look in the river, Then he saw his true master, fuck is a mister? (He was always master, hey).” While Abney lacks N.E.R.D’s obvious cosmic references, her deliberate references to blackness in the digital age of Trump make a convincing companion to N.E.R.D in its on-the-pulse commentaries.
What impresses me the most is the sense of youthfulness both artists maintain amidst the turmoil that runs amok in their work. Abney juxtaposes childlike geometries and technicolor hues with jarring images of police brutality in her piece Why (2015). Additionally, she employs a similar contrast between childhood aesthetics and scenes of misogynoir in Whooty (2013). N.E.R.D makes inventive use of childlike voices throughout their album. This is best heard in “Lightning Fire Magic Prayer,” where Pharrell begins the song by asking his nine-year-old son Rocket to “sing the letter g,” and then stretches that note across the entire track. “Secret Life of Tigers” has a theatrical level of energy; its melodic build-ups seem to be pulled straight out of High School Musical. M.I.A, a featured artist on the album, peppers “Kites” with her “millennial whoops,” giving the song an unmistakable Kidz Bop vibe. The short, quippy refrains throughout N.E.R.D could have easily be plucked from the text on Abney’s canvases, which are dabbed with onomatopoeias: “POW, OW, YO, OINK.” By incorporating these expressions of innocence, both artists tap into a compelling sincerity. Considering the weight of the artists’ subject matter, the use of seemingly naive perspectives further imbues their work with clarity and honesty
Listening to this album, it’s almost hard to believe that Pharrell hadn’t simply just sang the images he saw in Abney’s works into lyrics. N.E.R.D’s songs match Abney’s vibrant collages with an uncanny likeness, fitting together more like twins than a lock and key. Both artists’ works are imbued with prismatic energy: they colorfully disregard realism and can hurdle listeners and watchers from scene to scene like a kaleidoscope. The takeaway for me, after enjoying both artists’ work separately and then in tandem, is a new appreciation for what resistance can look like. Willful joy makes protest no less potent, makes rejections no less firm. In fact, being able to use bright colors and major chords to make art that resists can feel even more powerful. I listen and watch and feel them avowing “I can protest and fight back and still not let you take these things from me.” The best kind of subversion is the type that doesn’t look over its shoulder to make sure it’s being watched: it celebrates itself. I’m happy to celebrate with them.
For a work by work comparison, check out the works shown below and use the QR code to link you to a spotify playlist with each of the mentioned songs.
“Illuminate the corner, celebrate humanity scream and back at me in the morning
Every field in Mississippi, every street in California
Know the devil is a liar, it’s the time to be anointed”
Kites, N.E.R.D, 2017
“Bouncin’ around, bouncin’ around, bouncin’
Scrunchin’ their eyes with your name in their mouth and
Bouncin’ around, bouncin’ around, bouncin’”
Lemon, N.E.R.D, 2017
“Mane, fuck what you say
We’re gonna climb your wall
Okay Murphy’s Law
It’d be worth the fall
I sure hope you’re just talking, man
And that’s all
’Cause we’ll go over it, under it, around it
We have the gall”
Deep Down Body Thurst, N.E.R.D, 2017
“You climbing up that skyladder
Ya, You feel like AC when it’s June (Hey, hey, hey)
Your parents discriminate with the bathrooms (The fuck?)
Do they know these girls are in your room?”
Secret Life of Tigers, N.E.R.D, 2017