Manhattan Music

The New Prince Is a N.E.R.D.

In 1982, popular music was often whatever Prince Roger Nelson decided it was. Twenty years later, the same can be said for Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, two Virginians who, under their nom de pop , the Neptunes, have produced the work of Britney Spears, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Kelis, and under the rubric of N.E.R.D. have made a new album. Both Prince and the Neptunes produce songs on the new No Doubt record , Rock Steady , and both crossbreed musical idioms by instinct. But guess which of their respective new records is hopelessly convoluted, and which is the very thing you want to put on during a party?

In every sense, Prince has arrived at the place he has quite publicly coveted since the early 90’s: The Rainbow Children (NPG) is the work of an unfettered artiste. It is (take a deep breath) a concept album. Using a portentous basso profundo to narrate a sci-fi–fantasy plot line so impenetrable that it would benefit no one for me to recount it, Prince takes 11 tracks to get to a single, solitary hook-in the breezy ballad “She Loves Me 4 Me.”

But Prince’s hard-won freedom seems to have come at the price of his discipline. The Rainbow Children is full of accomplished but unfocused funk workouts and sundry forays into Ellingtonia and sub- Godspell epics that never quite catch fire. In his favor, Prince sprinkles pungent guitar throughout, and his voice is still an exceptional, feral thing, even when it conveys twaddle.

Prince has earned the right (and more notably, the financial independence) to do exactly as he pleases. But if he keeps producing material that’s as unrealized as The Rainbow Children , everyone else will have just as much right to ignore him.

Instead, they can pay attention to N.E.R.D.’s engaging new album, In Search Of (EMD/Virgin), which shows what the Neptunes do to amuse themselves when they’re not channeling one of their clients.

On In Search Of , Mr. Williams and Mr. Hugo want to make you split your sides as you bob your head. “Tape You” and “Brain” are both staccato, sprightly bits of lewdness of the sort that Prince is either too old or too in thrall to his Jehovah’s Witness elders to dream up these days. And should anyone doubt that N.E.R.D. can craft something more weighty than danceable smut, there’s “Am I High,” an airy ballad indebted to Donny Hathaway.

N.E.R.D. prefers to use a full band on In Search Of , which is a shame, since the duo’s syncopated drum programming is its greatest virtue. But Messrs. Williams and Hugo, modest melodists at the best of times, have nonetheless made a flyweight and eminently fun party record.