N*E*R*D

In Search of N*E*R*D (Virgin)

"Slave" may be a first: a Britney Spears song that doesn't cause all listeners over 14 (years or IQ -- you pick) to wonder reflexively if it might be preferable to have hammers smashed against their faces repeatedly.

This great miracle, like many other miracles performed for equal or greater pop musicians such as the Backstreet Boys, Mystikal, and Ol' Dirty Bastard, can be attributed to the team that surely causes other producers to work harder and sleep less lately: the Neptunes. Though many of their successes came in partnerships with hip-hop artists, on the Neptunes' first solo project -- recorded under the alias N*E*R*D (No one Ever Really Dies) -- the only scratching will be done by rap heads wondering just what the fuck this album is supposed to be.

In Search of N*E*R*D teeters somewhere between rock, R&B and funk -- most of the ingredients of contemporary hip-hop -- without ever specifically being a hip-hop album. Here, the Neptunes use live instruments to engineer metal thrashing, noodling guitar solos, disco beats and Hullabaloo pop psychedelia -- sometimes all on the same track. (This live sound replaces the colder, stranger computer-programmed beats that backed the original release of the album last spring, still available as an import for ambitious collectors.) Take "Truth or Dare" (featuring the hot breath of Kelis): It begins as a sexy come-on between girls and boys that builds dangerously before shifting into Sly Stone-influenced spirit lifter, and back again. The ear is constantly playing catch-up, as In Search ofgenre-trips from ultramodern bangers (the dirty-as-a-YMCA-swimming-pool "Lap Dance," which actually drags its bass hook into "Truth or Dare") to affected jock-jam rap ("Rock Star") to the earnest warmth of the Fifth Dimension (feel the opening of "Stay Together") and maggot-brained epics like "Bobby James," in which singer Shay affects his best P-Funk howl.

Yet unlike other labors of love, like Prince Paul's Psychoanalysis (What Is It?), which experimented deliriously with different styles and committed to none, all of the songs on In Search of make sense together while still craftily ducking definition. In Search of evokes the feeling of work by artists like Beck -- a deliberately weird, occasionally flawed and highly progressive cut-and-paste product (both musically and lyrically) of a career full of disparate influences.

 
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