Revenge of the N.E.R.D.

The Neptunes' creative masterminds restart their high-tech garage band

N.E.R.D. has always seemed like a side project for the Neptunes duo of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. The pair was on top of the pop world in 2002, when the N.E.R.D. debut In Search Of... was released. The Neptunes' first two huge hits—Britney Spears' "I'm a Slave 4 U" in 2001 and Nelly's "Hot in Herre" in 2002—weren't just big sellers; they helped define the sound of the new century.

Live-but-manipulated drums and guitars, space-age synthesizers, and squiggly, chaotic beats replaced the sample-heavy production of the 1990s. Along with fellow Virginia Beach native Timbaland, Williams and Hugo reinvented the record producer as both auteur and pop star. When guys in that position pick up their best friend from high school and announce that they're starting a rock band, it sounds like a really bad idea.

But N.E.R.D.'s a rock band about as much as the Roots are. It's never been entirely clear just what roles Williams, Hugo, and their childhood friend Shay Haley take in the group. In Search Of... features the Minneapolis alt-rock band Spymob on guitar, bass, and drums, but most of its efforts have been thoroughly Neptune-ized. Fly or Die, from 2004, was less funky and more psychedelic, but not by much—it lands somewhere in between Kanye West's Graduation and the Flaming Lips' Soft Bulletin. Williams played drums and Hugo learned guitar for the album, but the results are heavily processed.

Neither album had the kind of commercial or critical impact of the Neptunes' productions or Williams' more recent solo work ("Drop It Like it's Hot," "Frontin'"). As marginal as N.E.R.D. seems, though, inside Neptune world it's regarded as the real enterprise.

"It's more about our ability to express ourselves through our own creation," Hugo says. "It's one thing to be a producer. But this is the essence of us. We were a band when we started.... Neptunes is there to provide music for artists. N.E.R.D. is a band, a culture, a scene."

The group nearly stuttered to a halt after Fly or Die, or at least appeared to be falling apart. Williams announced in March 2005 that N.E.R.D. had "expired." A week later, the group's management insisted that N.E.R.D. was still intact. "That was because of some problems with the previous label, Virgin," Williams says. N.E.R.D.'s now signed to Interscope. "I was upset. We never broke up. And now we get to do what we get to do."

They took their time getting around to what they do. N.E.R.D. disappeared for three years. During that time, Williams broke out on his own and became a stand-alone celebrity. Since 2005, he's recorded a single with Gwen Stefani, released one solo album (2006's In My Mind), recorded a remixed version of that record (Out of My Mind, which still hasn't been released), and produced tracks by Madonna, Britney Spears, and the Swedish garage-rock combo The Hives. Hugo's been working on his own, too, but maintains a much lower profile.

But there are signs of renewed N.E.R.D. life: the current headlining tour; a summer tour with Kanye West, Rihanna, and Lupe Fiasco; and a newly leaked song that may or may not be the lead single for N.E.R.D.'s third album, Seeing Sounds, due out in June. "Everybody Nose" is far removed from the spacious lounge-rock of Fly or Die; it's essentially a full-on hip-hop track, with a minimalist staccato beat, a shout-along club chorus ("All the girls standing in the line for the bathroom"), and a brief falsetto interlude from Williams. It's the first N.E.R.D. song that sounds completely like a Neptunes production. It doesn't sound new—Williams and Hugo changed pop music so dramatically in 2001 and 2002 that we expect everything they do to sound at least this good—but it is raw and energetic. It's not just the kind of song that producers make to please themselves; it's clearly intended to move a dance floor.

"We want to get people moving," Hugo says. "We're so lucky. We just make music. That's what we always wanted to do. That's so cool."