How Involved Is N.E.R.D. in the N.E.R.D. Reunion?
The return of N.E.R.D. last week, with a new single called “Lemon,” presented multiple causes for celebration. Not only was did the song feature a ridiculous beat with an honest-to-god rapped verse from Rihanna, it also ostensibly marked the first collaboration we’ve heard in a while between Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. In addition to their work with N.E.R.D., an eclectic rock-oriented trio with their childhood friend Shay Haley, Williams and Hugo of course produced boundary-pushing, era-defining pop songs as the Neptunes in the late ’90s and 2000s. But the beloved duo largely went silent as Williams became the kind of mainstream star who can turn a saccharine ditty for a kids’ movie into an inescapable number-one hit. Their most recent work as co-producers appeared in 2015–on Snoop Dogg’s album Bush and on a trio of N.E.R.D. songs from The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water–and their collaborations had been declining in frequency for years before that.
On the internet, the response to the “Lemon”–and especially to the prospect of Williams and Hugo together in the studio again–was close to rapturous. “The legendary trio has finally returned,” gushed MTV; “Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo have always been magical,” read the Fader’s new headline on a 2002 Neptunes photo spread, republished this week to mark the occasion.
But how involved were Hugo and Haley in the making of “Lemon”? The song’s full credits, provided to SPIN by a representative of N.E.R.D., list Pharrell as its sole songwriter and producer. (Kuk Harrell, Rihanna’s longtime engineer, is credited for producing the vocals on her verse only.) By contrast, the liner notes to the the large majority of N.E.R.D.’s back catalog–including the entirety of their first two albums–credit Hugo and Pharrell as co-songwriters, and list the Neptunes as a production duo.
The change would seem to indicate that Williams largely wrote and produced “Lemon” himself. If that’s the case, the song may be most similar to 2008’s Seeing Sounds, the third N.E.R.D. album and the first to include tunes penned solely by Pharrell. Hugo does not have a writing credit on most of the songs on Seeing Sounds, though the Neptunes are the credited producers on every track. Hugo stepped back up for 2010’s Nothing, the last N.E.R.D. album before the recent return, which credits him as a writer on seven of its ten songs. (Haley is not credited as a writer on any N.E.R.D. album, and his contributions to the project have always been somewhat nebulous.)
Hugo and Haley are clearly involved with the current version of N.E.R.D. on some level, despite Pharrell’s apparently increased creative control over the lead single. Both appear in a recent press photo, and were present at a listening party for the forthcoming album No_One Ever Really Dies at ComplexCON over the weekend. According to a Los Angeles Times review of the show, at one point Haley “hopped down from [his] perch to rap along with the recorded music,” suggesting he may have contributed some vocals to the album. And Hugo has been promoting N.E.R.D. on Instagram all week.
“Lemon” is just one song, and it’s entirely possible that Hugo helped to write and produce the others. (A blog post at Genius makes a convincing argument that it was recorded in 2015, the same year that Hugo and Williams were working on Bush and the SpongeBob soundtrack.) Hugo declined through a representative to comment to SPIN, and N.E.R.D. representatives declined to elaborate about his and Haley’s contributions to “Lemon” beyond what is listed in the liner notes, or to provide credits for the full album. It’s also possible that the two non-Pharrell members worked on “Lemon” in some functional capacity, as the credits list N.E.R.D. as a performer, albeit without naming the individual members. But if N.E.R.D.’s big comeback sounded more like Pharrell’s solo production work for the likes of Nelly and Diddy than it did like the guitar-heavy funk of the band’s early records, there’s probably a reason for that.