A decade ago the hottest production team on the planet was The Neptunes - Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. With a unique sonic palette, the award-winning duo worked on records by massive artists including Justin Timberlake, Kelis and Jay-Z. In 2001, they translated behind-the-scenes success into spotlight-stealing acclaim as N*E*R*D (No-One Ever Really Dies), adding Shay Haley to create a trio. Their debut, In Search Of…, flew off the shelves in its two guises - a hip hop original and a later-released rock reworking - and its follow-up Fly or Die was well received. 2005's split seemed a Fawlty Towers-style end: history was happy, the band's record unblemished.
But a (inevitable, these days) reunion yielded a so-so third LP, 2008's Seeing Sounds, and here's the group's fourth collection: just as unremarkable as its immediate predecessor. It's not poor, as such - with Williams and Hugo on board, many an average track has been elevated to pop classic status - but it doesn't further any reputations in the slightest. And a by-product of this creative stasis is the risk that those first two albums will see their potency diluted by further just-enough exercises in funk-rock riffing and Williams' puzzling romantic-cum-misogynistic lyrics. He is still a vital force in pop production and a regular guest vocalist on hit records, so one has to wonder why he persists with N*E*R*D when the songs are no longer as strong as they were.
Nothing - in its 10-track version - is bookended by a pair of swaggering floor-fillers. Party People, needless T.I. guest rap aside, is a close cousin of Fly or Die's fine single She Wants to Move, famous for its absurd "her ass is a spaceship I want to ride" line and featuring a pre-Strictly Alesha Dixon in its video. The Nelly Furtado-starring Hot-n-Fun rides a bouncy bassline and oozes the same sort of grubby sexiness that characterised Britney's brilliant Neptunes-produced brace of I'm a Slave 4 U and Boys. But little of what happens between is particularly memorable - Perfect Defect is a fairly appealing ode to a lover's singular traits, and Hypnotize U comes over like Lil Wayne doing Spandau Ballet, but neither rank amongst their makers' best.
No disaster, Nothing offers perfectly serviceable fare for fair-weather N*E*R*D fans. But anyone who vividly remembers the fire in the band's collective belly around the time of their scintillating debut will be disappointed with this comparatively uninspired set.