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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Belt


20 years of N.E.R.D.’s excellent sophomore album

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Fly or Die - N.E.R.D.’s second album. Having already been turned on to the band - comprising lead vocalist/multi-instrumentalist, Pharrell Williams, multi-instrumentalist, Chad Hugo and drummer/backing vocalist, Shay Haley - from their first album, I was intrigued by what they would do on album number 2.

In Search Of… - their debut album which arrived in 2001 - replicated the rap/rock stylings of Linkin Park, albeit less sophisticatedly, and got me on board with the raucous single, ‘Rock Star’. It was a bit rough around the edges but a good album nonetheless.

Fly or Die leaned further into appealing to teenagers (myself included) with the themes conveyed and musical stylings for parts of the record. Led by the single ‘She Wants to Move’, the production levels clearly had gone up a notch for this album.

Listening back to this album I loved 20 years ago, I felt at least the same level of admiration for it, if not more.

Referring to the teenage focus, lyrics concern physical aggression in response to those who have wronged you, jealousy of people in a relationship and dark utterings in relation to wanting to be on the planet while several songs adopt a pop-punk aesthetic - very much in keeping with what was popular at the time and emphasised further by Benji and Joel Madden of Good Charlotte fame featuring on ‘Jump’.

Yet there is so much more to Fly or Die. Funky carnal songs, a smorgasbord of instruments and dreamy psych compositions are also present on this wildly ambitious record.

The first half of the album could be seen as the more pop-punk, teen angst part. It’s in these six songs that you have the title track which confronts the desire to be hugely successful or take an altogether more self-destructive path, the aforementioned ‘Jump’ which sees Williams and Joel Madden sing about running away from home to escape the claustrophobia of living with their parents and ‘Breakout’ which advocates pushing people if they (metaphorically) get in your way. All three could easily be lyrical templates for Limp Bizkit or any other nu-metal/pop-punk band of the early 2000s, though they are very good songs.

Also in the first half is opener ‘Don’t Worry About It’ featuring a funky guitar riff, lovely vocal harmonies and lyrics about infatuation, the rocky ‘Backseat Love’ which doesn’t need an explanation about its lyrical content and ‘She Wants to Move’. Lyrically quite arrogant, with Williams claiming a woman in a relationship would prefer to be with him and also featuring the icky line of ‘her ass is a spaceship I want to ride’ followed up by ‘pew-pew’ Star Wars laser-like sounds, the catchiness of the single is undeniable. Spanish guitar blends with funky bass and ambient piano on a bed of tom-heavy percussion which makes you want to groove along.

From this good first half of the album, it’s the second half where things get enjoyably weirder and more varied. Three of the tracks contain an extra hidden track, pushing the runtimes up to around eight minutes. ‘Wonderful Place’ is a whistle-heavy track which seems to show us what would have happened if Louis Armstrong had taken mind-altering drugs before recording ‘What a Wonderful World’. There are stirring, soulful lyrics before the hidden track details a trippy story about a baby being lost in a river and saved by its mother with an assortment of violin strings, acoustic guitar and bongos adding a dreamy soundscape.

‘Drill Sergeant’, musically, is like a cross between The Beatles and ELO, with Williams singing about his attempts to avoid conscription and flat-out refusal to go to war. The hidden track is an anger-fuelled rap about the things Williams hates about the army. ‘Chariot of Fire’ has a chamber-pop intro and is an ode to someone called ‘Mildred’.

‘Thrasher’ has more in keeping with the first half of the album with its violent proclamation as a response to an antagonist, ‘Maybe’ is a wonderful piano-driven ballad alluding to regret in a previous relationship and ‘The Way She Dances’ is a euphoric tribute to the subject which showcases Williams’s higher vocal register.

An hour long, Fly or Die is a triumph in holding your attention and making the time spent with it seem far shorter. The eclecticism is a joy to listen to, and 20 years on, it stands the test of time as a fantastic album from the early 2000s, demonstrating a glimpse of the vast creative capacities of Williams, Hugo and Haley.

Rating: 8.6/10


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