Fly or Die (Virgin)

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For all the esteem the title carries, being a record producer is -- or at least used to be -- a mostly faceless job. That's probably why the world-famous Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo) weren't content to simply be the men behind the boards of such hip-hop party hits as Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass" and Nelly's "Hot in Herre," as well as the platinum pop of Britney Spears' "I'm a Slave 4 U." So Williams' and Hugo's full-band alter ego, N.E.R.D. (which also includes their buddy Shay), allowed the Neptunes to grab their share of the spotlight, and they did so in 2001 with the aptly titled single "Rock Star."

Now that the Neptunes -- Williams in particular -- are truly, insanely famous, Fly or Die backs that old single's boasts with the requisite swagger. While the group's full-length debut In Search of... bolstered N.E.R.D.'s blips and bleeps with the talents of funk-rockers Spymob, this LP rests completely on the trio's own musical merits. Sure, Hugo is still a neophyte guitarist (he picked up the six-string just last year), and Williams' drumming is limited to the most basic timekeeping. But somehow they manage to wring maximum soul from their minimal skills. Hugo favors the squealing fuzz-tones of Jimi Hendrix and Funkadelic's Eddie Hazel, and at times Williams' tenor recalls Curtis Mayfield, but those references only hint at the crate-digging approach that has yielded influences not normally heard in Neptunes productions: classic Isley Brothers, '60s easy listening and power pop. It's all tempered with the group's trademark absurdity, of course, most notably in what is perhaps the oddest tribute to the female form ever made: "Her ass is a spaceship I want to ride," Williams lustily declares in the groupie anthem "She Wants to Move."

It's tempting to lump such a surreal, genre-defying work in with the innovations of OutKast and others pushing hip-hop in bold new directions, but the fact is that Fly or Die is a straight-up pop-rock album. Early in the title track, Williams hollers, "This is for the kids!" -- and that's actually a pretty picture. Imagine this album fueling pool parties, filling shopping malls and saturating corporate airwaves: What a wonderful world that would be.

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