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N.E.R.D. Talk Politics, Police Brutality, and Harvey Weinstein in New Interview

BIRMINGHAM, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 06: Pharrell Williams performs on stage at the Wireless Festival Birmingham at Perry Park on July 6, 2014 in Birmingham, United Kingdom. (Photo by Ollie Millington/Redferns via Getty Images)

Seven years since their last proper album as a band, N.E.R.D. are slated to release their new LP No_One Ever Really Dies later this month. In an extended interview with The Guardian published today, frontman Pharrell Williams discussed some of the political ambitions of the new album. “I don’t know if you’ve seen the news or who’s running my country but it’s a real fucking shit show,” he shared. “I’ve never seen such desperation in my life.”

Most remembered in the current moment for production work as The Neptunes and commercial solo singles like 2013’s hyper-posi “Happy,” Williams says that N.E.R.D. was losing momentum, and that he was far from satisfied with their 2010 album. “I mean look at the title: Nothing,” he stated. “That’s when we started losing ourselves. The label wanted uptempo records and we acquiesced. I was super-depressed. It was a tough fucking time.”

When asked about the media landscape in a “post-Weinstein world,” Shay Haley points out that some of their early songs about strippers and sex were actually more socially conscious than many realized. “Lapdance was a metaphor about politics, we just wrote it in a fun way,” he says. “I think that’s one of the beauties about the band: we have an innate gift to shine a light on real issues juxtaposed with the music.”

Williams also says that he understands how some of his music—especially that songwriting credit on, uh, “Blurred Lines”—doesn’t exactly hold up in this era of woke righteousness. “I’ve made all kinds of songs in my career,” he says. “People might say: ‘Oh what about this song?’ Yep, you’re right. I recognize now. I get it. It was fun to me at the time, but the earth changes and the rules change. We have to remember that. Context is important.”

Discussing his collaboration with Kendrick Lamar on “Don’t Don’t Do It” (which chronicles the fatal police shooting of Keith Scott in 2016), Williams says that the song was written to voice his support for the many unarmed victims of police brutality every day. “This was something I saw on the news. We have that crazy, crazy man [running the country] but also they have police that shoot unarmed black people the whole time. It rains and they shoot black people,” he says about the single. “I hid the story in something that’s so jubilant because that way you won’t miss the message.’’

It’s a riveting interview from some of the biggest names in hip-hop, especially at a time when the push to make an overtly quote-unquote “political” album couldn’t feel stronger. Discussing everything from new influences like Gang of Four, Alan Vega and early electro to the third verse of the National Anthem, which is often read as a celebration of slavery, Williams is frank and honest about what he hopes to achieve with the new release. When asked the obvious ‘Why now?’ question, he responds: “If not now, when? If not me, who?”

No_One Ever Really Dies is out December 15 via i am OTHER/Columbia. Read the full interview over on The Guardian‘s website, and check out the band’s recent singles “Lemon” and “1000” here.