Revenge of the N*E*R*D

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

Pharrell Williams wasn't supposed to be at the MTV Video Music Awards on August 29. According to his busy itinerary, Williams and the other members of the rock band N*E*R*D, the super-successful producer's ambitious little side project, were supposed to be enjoying a day off between their Holmdel, New Jersey, and Charlotte, North Carolina, concerts, playing a little PlayStation 2 on the tour bus, watching the special director's cut of National Lampoon's Vacation on the DVD player for the hundredth time -- and generally blowing off the whole smarmy music biz star fest that is the VMAs.

Never mind that Williams and his partner Chad Hugo, as hip-hop's most in-demand production team the Neptunes, had produced the tracks for a good majority of the night's award nominees, from Britney Spears' "I'm a Slave 4 U" and *NSYNC's "Girlfriend" to Usher's "U Don't Have to Call" and Nelly's "Hot in Here." MTV's annual must-see TV night for party-hardy music fans is a showcase for the camera-loving rock stars and cred-craving film directors and choreographers who rule the music video world -- not the nerdy, Pro Tools-tweaking computer geeks like Williams and Hugo who create all the real magic behind the scenes in the studio.

Hugo, in fact, had already bowed out of the N*E*R*D live tour, opting instead to stay home with his family while his more gregarious partner got the performing bug out of his system opening for Jay-Z and Nappy Roots on the Sprite Liquid Mix Tour.

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.

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But when Williams got the call at the last minute to appear onstage at Radio City Music Hall, singing the one little chorus he adds to Busta Rhymes and P. Diddy's Neptunes-produced hit "Pass the Courvoisier, Part II" (that's him singing under the table in the clip nominated for Best Rap Video), the world's most unlikely R&B singer -- the guy who lambastes wanna-be music celebrities as nothing but bullying posers in N*E*R*D's rising hit "Rockstar" -- simply couldn't resist basking in the spotlight for his own MTV minute.

Like the popularity-challenged high school smart guy suddenly offered the dubious job of water boy on the football team, Williams blew off a schedule of press interviews (including one for this publication) and made a quick detour to NYC just for the chance to make a short onstage cameo during P. Diddy's extravagant hits-of-the-year medley.

Strutting out onstage wearing a simple black tee shirt and a baseball cap bearing the N*E*R*D logo (a green diagram of the human brain that, from a distance, curiously resembles a cannabis leaf), Williams looked decidedly out of place slouching between the nattily dressed Diddy and the leather-jacketed Busta Rhymes -- two of hip-hop's most high-profile, bigger-than-life personalities. Competing for the viewers' attention amidst a high-flying team of gymnastic dancers and flashy stage lighting, Williams' few seconds on camera were probably missed by most of the millions tuned in to the event.

But the appearance did get Williams' picture flashed across the screen at the beginning of the awards extravaganza right between P. Diddy and Pink (announced by the sexy female off-camera voice as simply "Phar-rell"). For that moment, at least, Pharrell Williams made the grade as a bona fide rock star.

True nerds are nothing if not smart as a whip.

It was supposed to be Williams and Hugo's "Steely Dan project" -- a studio-created album by a non-touring, non-existing band designed only as a vehicle for all the more radical Neptunes experiments Britney and Babyface and the Backstreet Boys passed up on. Recorded last year by the two multi-instrumentalists along with rapper Sheldon "Shay" Haley, a boyhood buddy of the Neptunes from their Virginia Beach stomping grounds, N*E*R*D's debut album In Search Of . . . was prereleased to the press, where it was almost unanimously well-reviewed, but held back from the general public while the fastidious producers repeatedly remixed the tracks more and more to their liking. Finally, Williams and Hugo decided to ditch their trademark programmed beats and grooves altogether and rerecorded the album's 12 songs with a live band -- a risky move for a duo famous for crafting irresistible dance grooves out of nothing but keyboards and computers.

The revamped, ready-for-retail album was finally released last March (to even better reviews), and the hard-rocking singles "Lapdance" and "Rockstar" quickly found an audience with the tracks' bracing mix of rock and rap. But the people the album really connected with were those often-overlooked minions saddled with the label represented in the band's name.

Ostensibly devised as an acronym for the high-concept philosophical ideal "No one Ever Really Dies" ("Nobody" would have worked better, but hey), the name also served to represent a personality type previously unaddressed by both hip-hop and rock: the brainy, unrepentantly intellectual "black nerd."

The album's cover, a shot of the Neptunes' pal Shay all engrossed in video games on the couch while a foxy female moves about unacknowledged in the background, hinted at the archetype. But Williams himself has come to perfectly personify the image.

Taking care to be photographed in publicity shots wearing his decidedly non-bling wardrobe of AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd tee shirts, Williams deliberately flaunts a taste for white rock most people wouldn't expect from a hip-hop mogul -- and invites other disenfranchised African Americans to come out of the closet with their love of music styles that never manage to show up on BET's 106 & Park.

"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."

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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