Happy No More, Pharrell Williams and N.E.R.D Want to Wake You Up

“Pharrell is more of the abstract guy,” Mr. Haley said. “Whereas for me, I have more of the grit. I have more of the edge, so to speak, in terms of having my feet more planted to what reality is.” (Mr. Hugo declined to be interviewed in person but, in an email, wrote that N.E.R.D music was special because “You have a clearer view of earth from outer space.”)

The album repositions the group members from smooth funk-rock adventurers to scathed punk bruisers. But Mr. Williams was careful not to make a dour, joyless record. “If I make a record about this administration and it sounds sad, how many times you gonna listen to it?” he asked. “Now, if I take that same story and put it under music that feels happy as [expletive], how many times you gonna listen to that?”

The album includes raucous songs made with Rihanna, Future, Kendrick Lamar, André 3000 and M.I.A., all of whom are at their loosest. Mr. Williams’s 9-year-old son, Rocket, sings on “Lightning Fire Magic Prayer.” (He and his wife recently welcomed triplets.)

There are also audio clips collaged throughout the album, spoken word samples from sources including Rachel Jeantel, a friend of Trayvon Martin, and also the rapper Retchy P, who recurs saying “mad ethnic right now,” taken from a video Mr. Williams saw online. “That clip, to me, was as detailed as a da Vinci,” he said. “There was so much information in it.” He used it in several places, he said, as “a stamp to remind you this is coming from a black mind.”

lmmfao !!! We mad ethnic out here S/O MLK Video by PortCiti – LIVE

That Mr. Williams would arrive at this moment in his career wasn’t always ordained. In N.E.R.D’s early days, there was political rebellion sprinkled into the music, but only slightly (“Politicians is sounding like strippers to me,” Mr. Williams wailed on “Lapdance”).

“The first two-thirds of my career to date I didn’t care,” he said. “I was just purely doing things for aesthetic and bragging rights.”

But he has found it impossible to be complacent now. “We’re dealing with a time where it’s like, people believe what they want to believe,” he said. “I don’t know how you elect another president and people not go, you know, [expletive] because they don’t really believe in what the ballot said.”

The already weary Mr. Williams was growing slo-mo by this point, but insisted on continuing the conversation. On the phone a couple of weeks later, he was still exasperated, slipping into an imaginary conversation with an unsympathetic white person: “How can you say these things about my culture? How can you feel this way when you see someone getting gunned down?”

He then started speaking about the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, seeking to universalize the plea. “How can you say it’s not a time to talk about legislation? Those kids look like you.”

He continued, “There are atrocities happening in this country and people still going to the movies that night.”

And so, for now at least, his music will be acidic, disruptive, jarring.

“If I can make you blink once.” he said, trailing off. “Let me put my hand on your shoulder. Just blink. Blink.”

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