TORONTO — For the hip-hop mad scientists in N.E.R.D., the past two years have been much ado about “Nothing.”
They started work on their follow-up to 2008’s Seeing Sounds early, and had roughly 20 songs sketched out by the beginning of this year.
But when they gathered to listen to those songs again, the Virginia trio thought they sounded stale. So they scrapped the entire record and started again, resulting in the hip-hop psychedelia of Nothing, out Tuesday.
Yet even the band’s second crack at their fourth record wasn’t quite right initially, and they were forced to continue working on it into the fall.
“I would have been done a long time ago but the label was like: ’We need more uptempos,”’ said singer Pharrell Williams, affecting a nasally tone when quoting the label, during an interview at a Toronto hotel.
“You know, they’re like: ‘The club, the club.’ We’re more like: ‘The vibe, the vibe.”’
Indeed, N.E.R.D. — composed of producers/musicians/songwriters Williams, Chad Hugo and Shae Haley — has often felt like an outlet for the stray strands of experimental pop too out there for Williams and Hugo’s other outfit, the hitmaking production duo the Neptunes.
Williams says the primary motivation for the latest record is the same as it’s always been: they want to push the envelope.
And such perfectionist tendencies aren’t new. The group made headlines when they gave their debut In Search Of… a Europe-only release, decided they weren’t happy with it, withdrew the album, re-recorded it with a live band and released it again in 2002.
The central concept at work on Nothing is blending ’60s pop with an 808 backbeat, neo-soul, elastic funk and strands of Ennio Morricone’s spare scores.
After deceptively opening with back-to-back club-friendly tracks, Nothing indulges its stranger side with the Doors-esque slowburn Help Me and the vamping Victory setting the stage for much of the rest of the record.
A highlight is the lush God Bless Us All, which transitions easily from off-kilter funereal funk into tender soul.
“There’s Moody Blues moments, there’s America moments, there’s Crosby, Stills and Nash moments … but a lot of them have 808s in there too,” said Williams, slouching on a couch in a plaid button-down, scarf and jeans.
“It’s all very seemingly live sounding, with 808s under it. So it’s pretty interesting.”
To the label’s probable relief, there are more radio-friendly moments, too, as on the bubbly Hot-n-Fun, which features Victoria chanteuse Nelly Furtado on the chorus.
“A) we’re labelmates, B) she’s talented, C) she’s beautiful,” Williams said of why he wanted to feature Furtado. “Those are all three good reasons to cast that vote.”
Williams also says that, in a way, it feels as though the group is starting over with the new record.
“I think we’re just growing,” he said. “We figured out who we are, so the search is over.
“That’s why, with this album, Nothing, it kind of hits the reset button for where (we want) to go — which is onward and upward.”