Revenge of the N*E*R*D

After stepping out of the studio, Pharrell Williams finds the rock-star role suits him just fine

"I wanted to sing like the guy from America when I was younger," Williams confesses in his press kit bio, and coming from him, the statement somehow sounds more gutsy than all the macho boasts on the latest DMX album. Certainly any white kid with a few black friends knows Williams' type is not uncommon. But amidst the peer pressure of hip-hop culture, where the codes of cool become more rigidly defined with each new thug anthem, admitting your musical tastes run the gamut from R&B to C&W can easily become a black kid's guilty secret.

More than anything, N*E*R*D makes the world safe for the black nerd. The songs are by no means meek: Williams and Shay spout as many angry four-letter words and graphic sexual come-ons as you'll find on any Ludacris or Ja Rule record. But this time, they harness that aggression to shout the trials of the bookish, brainy types typically stomped on by both rap and rock.

"I don't mind being called a nerd," Williams professes in his bio. "We are the people who are proud of being smart, being witty and being clever when everyone else doesn't understand. That's what we do, that's the flag we're raising and waving."

From left, Chad Hugo, Pharrell Williams and Sheldon "Shay" Haley are N*E*R*Ds.
From left, Chad Hugo, Pharrell Williams and Sheldon "Shay" Haley are N*E*R*Ds.

Location Info


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It was only a matter of time before an army of unwittingly ghettofied geeks began saluting that flag -- and wanting to see a real, live N*E*R*D come to their 'hood.

The video for "Rockstar," set in a school gym with a group of gangly teens being mercilessly berated by a bullying coach (played by the unlikely MTV guest star Randy Quaid), neatly dramatizes Williams' Revenge of the Nerds premise. But the lyrics address a different kind of bully: the attitude-oozing celebrity who lords his popularity over all the little people he steps on during his rise to the top.

"You can't be me, I'm a rock star," Williams' thin voice rails over a bullhorn. "I'm rhyming on the top of a cop car." As the hired gun enlisted to make every rapper and pop singer on the record companies' A-lists sound cooler than they really are, Williams has surely sat beside dozens of spoiled, wealthy would-be American Idol rejects and felt that unspoken arrogance poking him in the ribs.

But now, suddenly, this new symbol of geek chic is proving that he can be them. Dominating the stage during N*E*R*D's opening sets for Jay-Z, popping up in videos with Rhymes and his own discovery, hot new rap act Clipse, the single-monikered Pharrell is getting dangerously close to becoming a dreaded rock star himself. British tabloids have already begun linking him romantically to some of the top artists the Neptunes have produced. "The latest pop gossip suggests Britney Spears and Beyoncé Knowles are fighting over the same man, and that man happens to be Neptunes/N*E*R*D front man Pharrell Williams," gushes a news item on MTV's European Web site.

Whether Williams will choose to hang with his nerdy pals after being embraced by the populars remains to be seen. But one thing's for sure: A flawed Clark Kent with a few cool friends could surely rescue the world from the growing brutalism of rap-rock a whole lot better than yet another Superman.

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