N.E.R.D., “No One Ever Really Dies” (Columbia)
Not many albums could survive Ed Sheeran performing reggae, but Pharrell Williams always has taken chances — not all of them successful — in N.E.R.D. The band’s first album in seven years is a typically diverse, trippy ride from the group that established Williams’ career as a performer in the early 2000s alongside Chad Hugo and Shay Haley. It’s unclear how big a role his sidekicks played this time, yet Williams still seems to need N.E.R.D. as a vehicle for indulging his more experimental side.
Despite all the seemingly gratuitous star power on this album and its potential for overkill, he doesn’t make a mess out of it. Rihanna contributes a rare rap vocal on the percussive, hypnotic opener “Lemon,” and it fits — in part because Rihanna improbably nails an ominous trap vibe. Future offers a similar interlude on the fizzy new-wave of “1000.” And the horror of the police-harassment vignette detailed on “Don’t Don’t Do It,” which starts like a breezy Earth Wind & Fire throwback, becomes apparent when Kendrick Lamar ratchets up the intensity.
The album coheres around its central theme — one that revolves around rising above worldly inhibitions and anxieties — and acid-dipped tone. “You got an extra eye, but you ain’t trying to use it,” Williams gently advises on the adrift-on-cosmic-bliss “ESP.” On the seven-minute “Lightning, Fire, Magic, Prayer,” he travels “far beyond the gaseous layer” over undulating keyboards, swerving rhythms and the sound of running water while questioning human existence. “Everything has a cost, did you profit?” he asks. In this context, hip-hop’s funkiest trickster, OutKast’s Andre 3000, makes perfect sense rapping about pterodactyls and raptors on “Rollinem 7’s,” which sounds like an updated take on Chicago acid house.
GREG KOT, Chicago Tribune
Luke Bryan, “What Makes You Country” (Capitol Nashville)
Once a country maximalist with songs about souped-up trucks and gyrating rear ends, Bryan downshifts to simplicity on an album that is alternately soothing and fatiguing. He uses the title track to shore up his bona fides: “I got my dirt road cred when I was 12, on a no-cab tractor haulin’ them bales.” But he also makes room for tolerance on the otherwise trite “Most People Are Good” — “I believe you love who you love. Ain’t nothing you should ever be ashamed of” he sings in what qualifies as a bold embrace, for country music, of accepting sexual-orientation diversity. Bryan is better as a sensualist: “Light It Up” has the skittish pulse of a frayed relationship, and he’s at his most emotionally tactile on “Like You Say You Do,” about coveting a woman his friend is letting down. By comparison, his songs about slow living feel rote.
JON CARAMANICA, New York Times
Bjork, “Utopia” (One Little Indian)
Bjork albums are often easier to admire than to love. She is a canny artist who chooses a stark sonic palette and theme for each project (strings for 2015’s discomforting “Vulnicura”; voices for 2004’s lovely “Medulla”), but sometimes the concepts make longer-lasting impressions than the songs themselves. “Utopia” is still rigorously conceptual — it’s full of flutes, birdsong, human choirs and abrupt electronic sounds (she again collaborates with producer Arca) — but, as its title suggests, it’s inviting and idealistic. “Utopia” finds Bjork embracing hope and love in songs with unusual contours but emphatic messages. Her voice swoops and soars, rarely settling into a distinct chorus or refrain but always conveying earnest emotion. “I care for you,” she repeats in “The Gate,” a hymnlike song full of space and depth. “Imagine a future and be in it,” she sings in the floating, transcendent “Future Forever.” This is future-forward music, slightly unmoored but beautiful.
STEVE KLINGE, Philadelphia Inquirer
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