N.E.R.D.'s "No_One Ever Really Dies" is on Columbia Records.

N.E.R.D.'s "No_One Ever Really Dies" is on Columbia Records. Credit: Columbia Records

N.E.R.D.

“No_One Ever Really Dies”

BOTTOM LINE A hip-hop return that is harder and tougher than ever.

In the seven years since N.E.R.D.’s last album, frontman Pharrell Williams has blossomed into a full-fledged superstar. He’s not just happy, feeling like a room without a roof. He’s a cultural force — with his own fashion line, TV spot on “The Voice” and high-profile songwriting and production gigs too numerous to mention.

His expanded ambitions are broadly on display for “No_One Ever Really Dies” (Columbia), with his childhood pals Chad Hugo and Shay Haley offering some groovy grounding as a foundation.

The album’s first single “Lemon,” which features Rihanna boldly rapping, is a straight-up stunner, taking the kind of infectious groove Williams and Hugo used to craft regularly as The Neptunes and raising it to new heights with highflying, high-concept lyrics. They bounce between frantic talk of politics and laid-back boasting, with Rihanna nonchalantly declaring, “I get it how I live it, I live it how I get it.”

The potent “1000” follows a similarly artistically formidable path, moving from Devo-influenced, frenetic new wave on the verses to a swaggering trap groove in the bridge and back again. “Don’t Don’t Do It” features them bouncing between a lilting, island-tinged groove and something more menacing, like a dark cloud spoiling a sunny day.

Throughout “No_One Ever Really Dies,” N.E.R.D. takes high-energy sounds that represent hard work and channels them into confident, cool grooves that signify success. In a way, it’s the sonic equivalent of how the group, especially Pharrell, has succeeded in the music industry.

Even when the trio seems to be fooling around, like in the good-time closer “Lifting You,” they still have a higher purpose in mind. “Lightning Fire Magic Prayer” takes the escapist disco that Pharrell forged with Daft Punk and applies it to a more spiritual discussion.

N.E.R.D.’s previous albums have often seemed overstuffed with ideas, but this time they have learned how to serve the big picture.

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