As of late last year, you could still make a case that The Neptunes still had
it, that the Virginian beatmakers had enough credentials and credibility
to avoid getting swept away by the changing tides of popular culture.
After years of naught but loving acclaim, you could feel audiences start
to naturally draw away from The Neptunes, the duo drifting on their way
to being so last-season. Still, with their The Neptunes Present...Clones gear,
Chad and Pharrell showed they were still live and kickin' it, such a
disc's Clipse, Pharrell, and most importantly Rosco P.
Coldchain numbers showing their syncopated beat-made minimalism was anything
but tired. Of course, such a compile also featured the musical abortions
of the High Speed Scene and Spymob. Neither of those awful corporate-rock
songs were produced by The Neptunes, but their mere endorsed inclusion
on a disc bearing the pair's name should've set off alarm bells. And,
sure enough, any Neptunian optimism still existent six months ago has
dwindled. And Fly or Die is gonna be the death of it of
not just the optimism, but the continued acclaim, the credibility, and
their being the definition of cool. On what's supposed to be the sound
of the duo's N.E.R.D vehicle taking flight, this death is, perhaps, attributable
to artistic hubris; it's the sound of someone crashing and burning in
a heap of misguided, grandiose intentions. It's the disc where The Neptunes
have chosen to complete their "rock" transformation, and this means heaps
of terrible-sounding modern-radio guitars, a telling Lenny Kravitz guitar-soloing
guest spot, and the appearances of two guys from the least threatening
punk-rock band in the brief history of time, Good Charlotte.
Fly or Die doesn't find The Neptunes defining a time, as one could say the original 2001 electro version of In Search of... did. Rather, it finds them latching onto the rock-revivalist movement, with disastrous results. Whilst the 2002 remade rocked-up version of In Search of... was way dubious, it's nothing compared to Fly or Die, which is a wholly conceived funk-rock record built, from the beginning, on such tenuous stylistic foundations. It also shows the downside flipside to The Neptunes' clean, digital, precise production sound. Whilst this is great when making staccato beats sound syncopated and punctuated to beyond-metronomic degrees, such a production aesthetic doesn't work well when working with electric guitars, analog organs, and vocal harmonies. Rather than sounding surgically precise, the tone is more just antiseptic, with any natural decay of the instruments cleaned away. Meaning, their guitars/organs/voices don't ring and linger, but rather sound like they've been cleaned up so cocksucking corporate suits will allow them onto their stringent playlists, the industrial-strength-toilet-cleaner-ish tone on "The Way She Dances" being particularly noxious.
All this smells of someone who's only just started to listen to "rock" right now, like regrettable genre-raiding from hip-hop heads who've long ignored such sounds, and only now act like they're the first to discover loud guitars, funk-rock fusions, and even old Meters albums. See, whilst their bastardized appropriation mostly draws on current sanitized sounds, there are moments where N.E.R.D go beyond rock's regrettable commodified now, revisiting past pop sounds pilfered from their parents' record collections. Like on "Drill Sergeant," where they make some sort of stylized display of going "'60s" with multi-part harmonies and handclaps and kitschy analog organs. Only problem is, given the digital, modernist tone of the recordings, the results fire completely off the revivalist/atavistic mark. And, given that the Neptunes've made their name as some sort of "futuristic"-sounding production team, hearing them go back and make second-hand, third-rate versions of old sounds seems like a disastrous artistic decision. Rather than sticking to what they do well, The Neptunes have instead gone with what they do worst: buying their own myth of N.E.R.D being a "rock band," and ruining their reputations in the process.