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Return of the N*E*R*D

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When rap rock died, someone forgot to tell N*E*R*D. The group, essentially a vanity project led by super producers The Neptunes (Chad Hugo, Pharrell Williams) and their friend Shay Haley, continues to rock, while their peers exited the mainstream long ago. Chalk it up to their history as reliable hit makers (outside of the band) and a fiercely loyal fan base, which is apparently enough for their label, as N*E*R*D isn't known to sell a ton of records.

The demise of a genre and a lack of commercial success for the beloved band, however, didn't stop the teens and twenty-somethings from packing The National Saturday night. Many seemed to be fresh from the 'burbs and a quick stop at Chesterfield Town Center's Hot Topic, where angst and rebellion are sold beside the wallet chains and black T-shirts.

If you've ever imagined what The Strokes would sound like if they were fronted by an American Idol reject and only performed Green Day out-takes, then you've already seen the night's opening act, Chester French. The retro-preppies recently signed with The Neptunes' Star Trak label and offered a spastic set of power pop for about 20 minutes. Their presence was politely tolerated by a crowd eager to get their N*E*R*D on.

After an extended break between sets, N*E*R*D's all-black backing band took the stage, followed by the men of the hour: Chad, Pharrell and Shay. While most eyes were on Pharrell and Shay, as they began to rap through their song "Anti," Chad also cut a striking presence. The keyboardist, planted firmly in the center of the stage, wore a ski vest and oversized red sunglasses and sported a cleanly shaved head. He was an odd and awkward centerpiece, like a bowl of monkey wrenches on your kitchen table. Strangely, Pharrell ignored him the entire evening, adding fuel to rumors that all is not well in The Neptune universe.

Shortly into their set, Pharrell stopped to talk to the rapt audience about individuality. The rapper, who has his own line of clothes and footwear, shouted at the people most likely to be wearing his clothes at that moment.

"You don't have to look like anybody else. You don't have to sound like anybody else," he said before ripping into the crowd-pleasing "Rock Star."

Despite the emphatic repetition of the song's chorus, Pharrell Williams still is not a rock star. He's a producer who fronts a rap/rock outfit when he feels like it. But I'm sure he parties like one.

The wiry singer invited the audience to join the Virginia Beach trio onstage, on two separate occasions. The gesture was met with adulation and respect from the few chosen to rock with N*E*R*D on "Lapdance" and "She Wants to Move." The band gave the crowd much of what they wanted for the night, except for an encore. Pharrell's voice appeared to be fading toward the end of the show, so perhaps that oversight can be forgiven.

The power and precision of N*E*R*D's band was a sad reminder of how strong and vibrant black music once was. Outside of The Roots, it's nearly impossible to name a group with predominantly African-American musicians and a major label deal. Yet, here was a great-sounding band, forced to play the half-baked songs of two producers and their best friend.

Once the beatmakers of the moment, The Neptune sound has largely been absent from radio in recent years, as Hugo and Williams have taken on projects separately. The return of N*E*R*D seems to be an attempt to steal back some of the shine taken by Kanye West and other producers. West, unlike Hugo and Williams, has that rare producer trait that allows him to write hits for himself and created a successful solo career. While The Neptunes' popularity as producers has dipped recently and the hits don't come as often when they self-produce, they can always make some noise with N*E*R*D and someone will listen.

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