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N.E.R.D. 

In Search Of . . . (Virgin)

Aside from Timbaland, the Neptunes are the biggest players in the world of hip-hop production. Their crunk digifunk never fails to get heads bopping, no matter who they're working for. But recording as N.E.R.D (No one Ever Really Dies), they have an opportunity to court their own creative muse, and the result is a rap-rock hybrid that squeezes the soulful funk of Marvin Gaye and Parliament through a contemporary strainer.

N.E.R.D.'s key players, Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams, actually decided to scrap a fully finished version of In Search Of . . . that they produced in their own studios last year. They then rerecorded it with a live band, presumably in order to match the warmth and optimism that vocalist Shay breathes into the lyrics.

By putting the spontaneity of the drumming and the psychedelia of the organs and keyboards before the aggression of the guitars, N.E.R.D. manages to steer clear of the stylistic breakdowns of most rap rock, although it still falls prey to the typical posturing inherent in the genre -- the constant braggadocio, blowjob references, and rock-star kiss-offs. But frankly, it doesn't matter. These guys were honest-to-God nerds in high school, and now that they've put their endless adolescent fantasies of sex, drugs, and rebel heroics to music, it's impossible to deny the sincerity in the delivery.

More by Steve Boughton

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