The first thing you’ll notice about “Lemon,” the surprise comeback single from the long-dormant Neptunes side project N.E.R.D., is the beat. Think about a few of the great rap songs of the last five or six years whose thumping, mechanically funky minimalism owes a debt to the starker side of the Neptunes production canon: songs like Nicki Minaj’s “Beez in the Trap,” Pusha T’s “Numbers on the Boards,” Pharrell Williams’ own work on Nelly’s “Get Like Me” and Puffy’s “Finna Get Loose.” OK, now imagine all of those songs playing at the same time, and you’ll get somewhere close to the sound of “Lemon,” which rattles and shakes with seismic force, all synth bleeps and vocal samples and ticking hi-hats orbiting a core of imposing negative space. It should serve as a reminder of how sorely the pop world misses their brand of futuristic and slyly sophisticated hedonism.
The second thing you’ll notice about “Lemon” is Rihanna rapping. You’d notice it first, except that it follows a minute or so of vocals from Pharrell himself, dancing around the beat like he did on the 2014 Future posse cut “Move That Dope.” And then, Rihanna, rapping. No Auto-Tune, no melody, no monosyllabic Migos flow: rapping, really rapping, the kind of rapping you used to hear on pop songs all the time in late ‘90s and 2000’s, when Pharrell was at his peak as a producer. She’s nimble and cocksure, just as she is when she’s singing. As usual, she sounds like she’s barely exerting any effort, and having the time of her life. It’s enough to make the most hardcore stans exclaim “RIHANNA COULD BE RAPPING FOR THE REST OF HER CAREER I’M HERE FOR IT,” and to make those with more measured appreciation for her music agree with them. (An alternate “Lemon” without Rihanna–and with a Pharrell verse that’s nearly identical to hers–serves mostly to highlight how the force of her personality elevates the main version.)
In 2017, Rihanna is rapping on an N.E.R.D. beat that almost sounds like prime-era Neptunes. That the elements of “Lemon” don’t exactly cohere into much of a song beyond the production and her fiery contribution is basically immaterial. (One line of the hook goes “Bouncin’ around / Bouncin’ around / Bouncin’.”) With its celebrity guest, hint of nostalgia, surprise release, and word-of-mouth hype, “Lemon” has all the makings of a contemporary Big Pop Moment. When Rihanna snarls “This here ain’t a scrimmage / Mothafucka we ain’t finished” partway through her verse, it really feels like one.