20 years ago, the beginnings of NERD marked the dawn of an era without limits
From the beginning, Looking for… come out. I discovered NERD’s debut in 2002 at a Best Buy off Houston’s I-10 loop, sitting in the front of the store on a blue kiosk marked $6.99. I was in the first year of English high school teacher, struggling to collect all the things that are expected of me. There was this no-frills album cover staring back at me, with a twenty-something black man on a ramshackle-looking couch in some nondescript apartment playing a video game in his house clothes, staring at a TV offscreen, blissfully unaware of the camera. The cover appealed to me with its mundane imagery – a breath of fresh air from the bad boy glamor on the rap album covers I was also buying at that time. Almost every N.ER.D. fan has a story like this about the first time Looking for… crossed their radar. And over the next 20 years, the album became a touchstone for the next generation of visionaries.
Created by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, aka the Neptunes, with their longtime Virginia Beach friend Shay Haley, NERD was a divergent project in its day. His sound was a far cry from the staple pop, rap and R&B hits they had produced for artists like Kelis, Jay-Z and Britney Spears. in the years leading up to its release. Instead of their futuristic “Neptune sound,” NERD delivered a brash rap-rock-funk hybrid – a combination that left them searching for an audience, at least among a largely skeptical critical establishment. A 2002 Fork exam lacerated Looking for…, comparing its sound to “the anthem of brotherhood[s]and “Rap-Metal 101,” and concluding that the album was closer to Kid Rock than the AC/DC influences that Pharrell cited on the band’s website.
It was a fairly common take on their early days. I remember a local radio station in Black Philly playing “rock starand the DJ coming in at the end saying, “I don’t know what that was, but don’t worry, we won’t be playing that kind of music here.” The subtext in many corners was clear Who did these non-white dudes think they were trying to make rock music?Who told these two inventive pop machine producers that they could do anything other than what the industry already celebrated them for? There was a path for rap/R&B producers and visionaries back then: making hits, doing solo projects, creating clothing lines, partnering with a liquor brand, maybe creating a record company. The Neptunes made some of those finished things time, but NERD showed they were also interested in exploring and expressing things that didn’t fit into conventional boxes. For misfit fans who have found Looking for.., the discovery was emotionally like handing over your first comic book, skateboard, or animated movie: a veil pulled back, revealing another world adjacent to the one you were sailing through. As someone who found themselves huddled in the margins of others’ expectations around my identity, finding NERD at age 22 was both eye-opening and validating. hereI thought, are my people.
For many of us who have discovered their music and its place in a long line of alternative non-white expressions from Sly Stone to Bad Brains, NERD’s mere existence – the provocative and happy way in which they rejected false binaries – gave language and visualization to something that had eluded us for the longest time. It was a limitless album that wasn’t interested in being boxed in based on melanin or melody. Look past the insecure swagger of “Lapdance,” “Truth or Dare” and “Brain,” and you might find the tale of a relentless, optimistic romantic in “Run to the Sun,” “Am I High and the sometimes emotionally contradictory “Baby Doll.” Tracks like “Provider”, “Bobby James” and “Things Are Getting Better” oscillate between bouts of optimism, fear, confidence and surrender. Towards the end of the album, “Rockstar” arrives as a triumphant megaphone for the sweetly intimidated who will inherit the earth.
The beginnings of NERD validated an entire generation of hyphens – people who straddle cultures, genders, identities and expressions. Its fans include some of the most influential tastemakers and creatives of the past two decades. The late Virgil Abloh quoted Looking for…like a portal that allowed black children to “jump out the doorto the kind of unlimited creativity and identities that didn’t fit the fixed definitions around us. On the other side of that door we have a stream of artists and sounds. Afro-Indigenous multi-gender artist Princess Nokia cited the band’s trademark trucker hat as one of her nine things she can’t live without it. The Odd Future gang are among the most obvious disciples of the project: Syd, Tyler the Creator and Frank Ocean have all referenced NERD as the foundation of their art. Death of the egointernet’s acclaimed 2015 album, follows a similar cultural plan to Looking for….. Throughout his solo work, Tyler, the Creator has both referenced and collaborated with Pharrell and NERD Similarly, Frank Ocean has worked with Pharrell (The Orange’s chain “Sweet Life”), and Blondes “Nights” has emotional echoes of “Provider”. At the 2014 Camp Flog Gnaw festival, the two generations combined as NERD and Tyler performed together on stage. Next, Tyler interviewed Pharrell in a post-show conversation that felt like a handover, as Pharrell told her, “The stories you used to tell me about listening to our album…mean more to me than to you.”
In 2022, music is still a racialized identity battleground. Suite C, streaming platformsconcert halls and the music industry as a whole are too often caught in the illusion that creative expression falls heavily along color lines. In the rest of the world, we are still caught up in conversations that reinforce the supremacy of culture, identity, race and gender in fixed, dominant or inferior positions. Art has always been a means of providing a counter-argument to these notions. Looking for…may not have everyone’s definition of depth, but 20 years later, as many NERD sounds and aesthetics have shifted to the center, it’s clear there’s been a resonance. A generation later, we still have a world to explore off the beaten path.