By EW Staff
January 23, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST


WHAT’S THE D.E.A.L.? Between crafting hits for hip-hop’s A list, the Neptunes (producers Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo) find time to work on N.E.R.D. (which also includes Shay, who contributes vocals), an outlet for their more offbeat ideas. ”With the Neptunes, we’re the crayons for other people’s coloring book,” says frontman Williams. ”But with N.E.R.D., this our own coloring book.” As with their 2002 debut, In Search Of…, the upcoming disc is ”hip-hop-minded, but not hip-hop-sounding,” says Williams. ”It’s psychedelic in the sense that this is mind music — not necessarily distorted or warped or contorted. I think on every song you could close your eyes and envision different things.”

MUM’S THE W.O.R.D. Williams is frustratingly hush-hush about album details. Guest cameos? ”I can’t tell you that. I don’t want to say.” Song titles? ”I just can’t tell you.” Why not? ”Because I want you to be happy with it instead of competing with the expectations of what you already have. Then when you hear the final thing, you’re like, Whoa!”

JUST A TITLE? P.L.E.A.S.E.? ”Fly or Die,” says Williams. That wasn’t so hard, was it? ”I always think I say the dumbest s — – [in interviews],” he explains. ”I don’t say the right thing. I think my music is much more accurate than my response to questions.” (March 23)