The audacity of In Search Of..., the first album by N.E.R.D., the production team otherwise known as the Neptunes, begins before the music does. In a press release that accompanied the disc, the two principal members, Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams, give praise to America -- that's right, the '70s puppy-dog folkies of ''A Horse With No Name'' fame. Other than Janet Jackson, who sampled the band on last year's ''Someone to Call My Lover,'' it's beyond bizarre to find anyone in R&B name-checking a soft-rock oldies act.
It's even stranger coming from the Neptunes, who've spent the last decade infusing singles by Jay-Z, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Mystikal, and other rappers with club-romp bounce and flow. Although they only half succeeded in revamping Britney Spears on ''I'm a Slave 4 U,'' the Neptunes reinvigorated hip-hop radio by realizing that the music was just as important as the rhyming.
But the America homage reveals another side to them -- their ambition. For their first project as a distinct entity, Williams, Hugo, and third wheel Shay (Sheldon Hailey) could have followed the route taken by other hip-hop producers who issue their own albums: Lay down trademark beats, hire instantly recognizable stars, call it a day, watch the cash roll in. Instead, the Neptunes have taken a genuine risk. ''In Search Of...,'' released under their nom de pop N.E.R.D. (No One Ever Really Dies), was initially made with sampled beats and released in the U.K. last summer. Unhappy with the creative results, N.E.R.D. shelved the British version and recut the same material with live musicians, the rock-funk band Spymob. The new, revamped album replaces their signature spartan-techno grooves with rock guitars, drums, pianos, and other oldfangled instruments virtually guaranteed to get them shunned from the same radio formats that embrace them.
Artistically, though, the gamble paid off. ''In Search Of...'' has a crackling vigor missing from the first stab, and its mélange of genres makes for music unlike anything else around. Tracks like ''Am I High'' and ''Things Are Getting Better'' pull together jazz-fusion funk, rapping, and slippery soul harmonies into a cogent, kinetic whole; if Steely Dan had grown up in an inner city in the '90s, they would have sounded this way. ''Truth or Dare'' is a hair-raising blast of air with metallic guitars -- a dance-floor stare-down between N.E.R.D. and guest Kelis, who roars like a hellion. More traditional, but not the lesser for it, is ''Run to the Sun,'' a gorgeous heartbreaker about the end of an affair.
The use of a band does more than liven up the songs; it adds an extra dimension to the lyrics. The album is filled with shady jive talkers -- adolescent addicts (''Bobby James''), desperate drug dealers (''Provider''), hopeless types backed into society's corners (''Lapdance''), and kinky men who want to videotape their girlfriends having sex, preferably with other women (''Tape You''). Had the Neptunes utilized hip-hop party beats, the lyrics may not have stood out. But the hard, grimy rap-rock tracks, not to mention Williams' sullied-angel voice (which recalls that of the late Curtis Mayfield), bring the scorched souls to life. They're like characters in a modern, hip-hop remake of a blaxploitation film.
Parts of ''In Search Of...'' are ugly, musically and lyrically. ''Rock Star'' is a savage parody of a self-mythologizing rapper (''I'm rhyming on the top of a cop car/I'm a rebel and my .44 pops far''), but the electrofunk rage behind it feels too congested. Like other artists, N.E.R.D. sometimes confuse different with better. Knotty metal riffs are more musicianly for sure, but in the long run, are they as entertaining and outright enjoyable as the intergalactic blip-blips Williams and Hugo deployed on Mystikal's ingratiating ''Shake Ya Ass''?
That question rages not just around the album but around pop in general. As seen in the heap of Grammy nominations bestowed upon India.Arie and Alicia Keys, who'll dash over to her piano at the drop of a porkpie hat, the industry is more taken than ever with music-school grads. Instrumental training is well and good, but the cheerleading for those musicians feels like a reactionary backlash against teen pop, rap, and other genres that make Grammy voters feel old. Thankfully, ''In Search Of...'' stems less from conservatism than from a real need to stretch out, to see what other musical possibilities are out there. Pop needs to be shaken up, and these extra-loose cannons may be just the ones to do it.