Fly Or Die
.E.R.D.’s 2001’s debut In Search Of… was one of the finest pop albums of the past decade, maybe more. With songs like “Rock Star” going so far over the top, the question of whether the Neptunes’ (and friends) rap-rock hybrid was serious or not became irrelevant. It helped, of course, that it also contained a strong core of intelligence, rejecting most of the clichés you’d think they’d be spouting, albeit through the device of taking them to their obvious conclusions (cf. “Provider” and “Bobby James” among others).
And now we have…well, the first time I heard Fly Or Die I was profoundly disappointed. “She Wants To Move” is, of course, genius, down to Shay squawking “She’s sexy!” at the end of every line. But the rest seemed so much less complex, interesting and catchy, both musically and lyrically, compared to In Search Of…. And while I didn’t particularly think this was due to N.E.R.D.’s dismissal of Spymob for the record, it is a convenient excuse.
But I’m not here to just endlessly compare Fly Or Die to its predecessor. I think the approach this time, which relies on a much greater degree of sincerity (four songs empathize with high school angst in the lyrical manner of a million emo bands, if they had a brain; that one of these, “Jump”, employs the Madden brothers from Good Charlotte is unfortunate but not fatal), isn’t as successful as their past approach. That, however, isn’t the real sticking point either.
To get to the main issue, let’s consider “Wonderful Place”, the seventh track on the disc. It’s a wonderful Technicolour evocation of either a natural high or E—take your pick–which runs three minutes past its stated running time of 4:19. Because there’s another song there. Now, this wouldn’t be a problem in most cases, but it’s not even a good one—a muddled story about a toddler that almost drowns (although it does boast a nice string motif). More annoyingly, the next track, “Drill Sergeant”, does the exact same thing. If these were supposed to be extended pieces, fine—why the incorrect times on the back?
The first and second parts of “Drill Sergeant” in particular are good, the song proper being the best thing here, a deceptively sweet and poppy assault on Bush (“You must think you’re Orson Welles / And this is 1954”), and the secondary piece being the one place Pharrell’s normal friendly demeanor here really slips.
Couple this with the fact that the last third of the album is noticeably subpar, compared to the beginning of the record, and we have the major problem with the disc: N.E.R.D. have some great tunes here, “Don’t Worry About It” (the first song I’ve heard in a long time where a male assures a female it’s okay if she doesn’t want to have sex, and yet it’s still sexy), the two “Drill Sergeant”’s, “Breakout” and a bunch more, but the whole album is put together so oddly, almost haphazardly, that this works better as a collection of moments than as a whole. It’d probably be more productive, if I had the space and time, to go into each track here in great depth rather than trying to sum up the album as a whole, but that would take several thousand more words than Fly Or Die may actually warrant.
Fly Or Die feel like it wants to have an overarching point, but the occasional attempts to link things together don’t really pan out, and the sound of the album will likely baffle many. I was exaggerating above when I called this a rock album, but not by a lot. N.E.R.D. still make great pop, but conform here more closely to traditional rock structures than ever before. Can I sympathize with pretty much everything N.E.R.D. writes about? Oh, yes. Their hearts are clearly in the right place. But it feels like they’re still getting things together, a bizarre step back after the slick cohesiveness of In Search Of….