From 1998 to 2002 — the peak of their popularity and weirdness — production duo the Neptunes were masters of the unlikely rhythm, mystically culling headbanging cosmic funk from sproings and blats and drips and gulps and fizzy-wizzy bottle rocket blast-offs. With their debut as N.E.R.D. (the duo alongside buddy Shay Haley), they finally force man into the machine, commissioning live drummers and guitarists to somehow recreate the impossible cartoon bounce of their Willy Wonka factories.
In true Neptunes fashion, tricky polyrhythmic Lego towers are still erected next to voids of negative space, but In Search Of… is more an open space to toy with rock-music conventions. It feels like everything from Funkadelic chug to Paisley Park swirl to Bizkit burn were all given a sick Nep remix. Bounce-and-churn tracks like "Lapdance" and "Rock Star" give meaty rawk an alien groove, easily shaming 2001's omnipresent rap-metal funkateers. Slick-talking bubblerock come-ons like "Brain" and "Tape You" foreshadow the two Top 20 singles they produced for Justin Timberlake; and Motown-gone-RobotTech retrofuture banger "Baby Doll" is a gritty forebear for Gnarls Barkley and Janelle Monáe. As defiantly strange, sleazy and thorny as any Neptunes production, N.E.R.D. gets just a little rockstar swagger caught in the spokes of their nerdy exterior.