How N.E.R.D.'s Debut Brought the Dawn of a Boundless Era

Right from the start, In Search of… stood out. I discovered N.E.R.D.’s 2002 debut at a Best Buy on the rim of Houston’s I-10 loop, sitting at the front of the store on a blue kiosk marked $6.99. I was a first-year high school English teacher, struggling to pull together all the things expected of me. There was this unfussy album cover staring at me, with a twenty-something Black guy on a battered-looking couch in a nondescript apartment playing a video game in his house clothes, blankly staring at an off-screen TV, blissfully unaware of the camera. The cover drew me in with its mundane imagery — a breath of fresh air compared to the bad-boy glamor on the covers of the rap albums I was also buying around that time. Nearly every N.ER.D. fan has a story like this about the first time In Search Of… crossed their radar. And over the next 20 years, the album became a touchstone to the next generation of visionaries.

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Created by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, a.k.a. the Neptunes, with their longtime Virginia Beach friend Shay Haley, N.E.R.D. was a divergent project in its time. Its sound was far afield from the inescapable pop, rap and R&B hits they’d produced for artists like Kelis, Jay-Z, and Britney Spears in the years leading up to its release. Instead of their trademark futuristic “Neptune sound,” N.E.R.D. offered a brash rap-rock-funk hybrid— a combination that left them in search of an audience, at least among a largely skeptical critical establishment.  A 2002 Pitchfork review lacerated In Search Of…, comparing its sound to “frat house anthem[s]” and “Rap-Metal 101,” and concluding that the album was closer to Kid Rock than the AC/DC influences Pharrell cited on the band’s website. 

This was a fairly common take on their debut. I remember a local Black Philly radio station playing “Rock Star” and the DJ coming in at the end saying, “I don’t know what that was, but don’t worry, y’all — we won’t be playing that type of music on here.” The subtext in many corners was clear: Who did these non-white dudes think they were, trying to do rock music? Who told these two inventive pop-machine producers they could do something other than what the industry was already celebrating them for? There was a path for rap/R&B producers and visionaries at the time: make hits, do solo projects, make clothing lines, partner with an alcohol brand, maybe start a record label. The Neptunes did some of those things over time, but N.E.R.D. showed that they were also interested in exploring and expressing things that didn’t fit into the conventional boxes. For the misfit fans who found In Search Of.., the discovery was emotionally akin to being handed your first comic book, skateboard, or anime film: a veil pulled back, revealing another world adjacent to the one you were navigating. As someone who found himself crammed into the margins of other people’s expectations around my identity, finding N.E.R.D. as a 22-year-old was both revelation and validation. Here, I thought, are my people. 

For many of us who discovered their music, and its place in a long line of non-white alternative expression from Sly Stone to Bad Brains, N.E.R.D.’s mere existence — the defiant, blissful way they rejected false binaries — gave language and visualization to something that had escaped us for the longest time. This was a boundless album that wasn’t interested in being boxed in based on melanin or melody. Look past the insecure braggadocio of “Lapdance,” “Truth or Dare,” and “Brain,” and you could find the story of a relentless, optimistic romantic in “Run to the Sun,” “Am I High,” and the sometimes emotionally contradictory “Baby Doll.” Tracks like “Provider,” “Bobby James,” and “Things Are Getting Better” swing through bouts of optimism, fear, confidence, and abandonment. Toward the end of the album, “Rockstar” arrives like a triumphant bullhorn for the bullied meek who will inherit the earth. 

N.E.R.D.’s debut gave validation to a whole generation of hyphenates — people who straddle cultures, genres, identities, and expressions. Its fans include some of the last two decades’ most influential tastemakers and creatives. The late Virgil Abloh cited In Search Of…as a portal that allowed Black kids to “jump through the door” to the sort of boundless creativity and identities that didn’t fit the fixed definitions around us.  On the other side of that door, we’ve gotten a flood of artists and sounds. Afro-indigenous multi-genre artist Princess Nokia has cited the band’s trademark trucker hat as one of her nine things she can’t live without. The Odd Future gang are among the project’s clearest disciples: Syd, Tyler the Creator, and Frank Ocean have all referenced N.E.R.D. as a foundation to their art. Ego Death, the Internet’s acclaimed 2015 album, follows a cultural blueprint similar to In Search Of….. Throughout his solo work, Tyler, the Creator has both referenced and collaborated with Pharrell and N.E.R.D. Similarly, Frank Ocean has worked with Pharrell (Channel Orange’s “Sweet Life”), and Blonde’s “Nights” has emotional echoes of “Provider” to it. At the 2014 Camp Flog Gnaw festival, the two generations combined as N.E.R.D. and Tyler performed on stage together. Afterwards, Tyler interviewed Pharrell in a post-show conversation that felt like a passing of the baton, as Pharrell told him: “The stories you used to tell me about listening to our album…mean more to me than to you.”

In 2022, music is still a racialized identity battlefield. C-suites, streaming platforms, concert venues, and the music industry as a whole are too often caught up in the illusion that creative expression falls heavily along color lines. In the wider world, we are still caught in conversations that reinforce the supremacy of culture, identity, race, and gender in fixed, dominant or inferior positions. Art has always been a way of providing a counter-argument to these notions. In Search Of…may not have everyone’s definition of depth, but 20 years later, as many of N.E.R.D.’s sounds and aesthetics have moved towards the center, it’s clear there’s been a resonance. A generation later, we’ve still got a world to explore outside the box.

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