Tom Sinclair
March 26, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Pharrell Williams is mightily miffed. It’s two days before his band N.E.R.D. is to appear on Saturday Night Live, and the group has just run through a rehearsal of its current single, ”She Wants to Move,” at SNL’s Manhattan studios. Williams’ plan had been to have a bunch of kids skateboard around the SNL set holding placards trumpeting the March 23 release of N.E.R.D.’s kaleidoscopic, freewheeling second album, Fly or Die. Unfortunately, the show’s powers that be have just nixed it.

Sitting in his dressing room a few moments after hearing the news, flanked by fellow N.E.R.D.s Chad Hugo and Shae Haley, Williams explains why he’s so irate, in language spicier than the catered Jamaican-style chicken he’s noshing on: The album needs ”all the f — -in’ promotion it can get.” It is his contention that Virgin Records has not been pushing the record aggressively enough, a state of affairs he attributes to poor leadership. ”I’d love for you to call up Virgin and say, ‘I’m from ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY and Pharrell is complaining that you guys are not putting the proper money into [promotion] to let the staff do what they have to do to sell this record,”’ says Williams, who gets increasingly worked up, hammering away at his label for no less than 15 minutes. ”’How do you respond to that? Or do you want to plead the Fifth?”’ (They — or rather a Virgin spokesperson — respond like this: ”We love Pharrell — he is an enormously talented musician — and the new N.E.R.D. record is getting a full-court press worldwide. We love it when artists like Pharrell offer their marketing input. It keeps the process interesting.”)

Whatever the realities of the N.E.R.D./Virgin brouhaha, it points to some intriguing questions. After all, Williams and Hugo aren’t just a couple of young musos in some random baby band, they’re also the friggin’ Neptunes, superstar chart-toppers (their recent compilation CD, The Neptunes Present…Clones, debuted at No. 1 and went gold) and producers of more contemporary hits (including songs for Usher, Justin Timberlake, and Britney Spears) than you can shake a trident at, making them two of the most successful dudes in the biz. And therein could lie the problem for Virgin: Why is the pair focusing on N.E.R.D., a weird art-for-art’s-sake side project, and an album so different from a Neptunes track that it would be a marketing challenge for even the savviest label exec?

To hear the N.E.R.D. trio tell it, it’s no head-scratcher: They were just following their muse. Fly or Die was recorded mostly at the Neptunes’ home studio in Virginia, with Williams, 30, and Hugo, 29, playing all the instruments and high school pal/third wheel Haley, 28, rapping and contributing the odd vocal aside. The album is remarkable, combining elements of Frank Zappa, Sly Stone, Queens of the Stone Age, Curtis Mayfield, and a dozen other left-field influences into a diverse, musically arresting package. More crucially, Fly or Die has the sound of a band finding its voice while raising the stakes for its peers — one of those watershed, line-in-the-sand albums, like the Beatles’ Rubber Soul or De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising (one of Williams and Hugo’s personal favorites).

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