September 4, 2003


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Once in a while, producers garner such acclaim and ubiquity they can’t help but step out from the studio to take the stage. Such is the case for the famed production duo and hip-hop icons, The Neptunes — just take their latest release, Clones.

You know Pharrell Williams, right? Lately, you’ve seen his diamond adorned, boyish looks everywhere, including the cover of Source magazine. Most recently his falsetto hook, has graced Snoop Dogg’s hit “Beautiful,” the Clipse’s breakthrough “Cot Damn,” and he’s all over any Justified song you can recall. The chances are if you see Pharrell doing his thing anywhere in the forefront, his partner, Chad Hugo, is not too far away working his magic behind the scenes.

Over the short span of their career, the Virginia-based team has hooked up with an A-list of stars too long to enumerate in a single breath. It starts with a hip-hop catalog including Old Dirty Bastard’s “Got My Money” as well as Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass” and makes the pop crossover with hits such as Usher’s “U Don’t Have to Call” and Britney Spears’s “I’m a Slave 4 U.” As the Neptunes have left their mark all across the charts, they’ve kept their integrity intact by pushing cutting edge beats on both the pop and hip-hop forefront — for every “sellout” Britney song, there’s something analogous to a N.E.R.D. or Nelly hit (i.e. “Hot in Herre”) to maintain their street cred. The key to their success as producers is their knack for carefully manipulating the interplay between formula and innovation. By mastering the classical structure of a mainstream hip-hop song — the swaggering, cock-sure bass lines and bombastic lyrical flows — while at the same time, hitting upon fresh beat architecture through layers of digital embellishment, The Neptunes have scored enough hits to rival industry mainstays Timbaland and Dr. Dre.

Clones presents such a strong argument for the duo’s skill that the listener almost begins to wonder whether or not their favorite lyricists could pull it off without the help of The Neptunes. From a stripped down scratch pulse to the gaudy, in-your-face layered bass hits, The Neptunes continually change form, engendering each song with a different mood. However, the greatest difference between each tracks remains the unique flow and identity of each featured artist — a continual reminder of the codependency of producers and artists. It becomes clear The Neptunes couldn’t do it all on their own, but then again, Pharrell does make a pretty convincing argument for his artistry when he delivers his signature, lady-killer vocals.

The first full track of the album, “Light Your Ass on Fire,” features Busta Rhymes spitting his rapid, breathy verse over a stripped raw, electro-metallic hip-hop beat. With a double-entendre at each corner, Busta waxes poetic on the subject of his favorite female asset, but the call and response “Watch me get deeper than a Navy Seal,” conveys rather quickly what all the wordplay is about, if you hadn’t caught it from the first few seconds of the song.

The Neptunes travel in the exact opposite direction on Ludacris’s “It Wasn’t Us.” The song features full-fledged production, replete with a rolling, synthy bass line speakers cannot seem to contain, as the sound switches channels right to left and back again. Meanwhile, the Mouf of the South bombards you with his signature slurred flow.

For “Frontin'” Pharrell steps out from the production board to take centerstage backed by his own falsetto, vocal harmonies and a killer Jay-Z verse. Pharrell trades verses with the likes of Clipse and Rosco P. Coldchain on the sultry, piano-horn based “Hot Damn,” then mixes it up with N.O.R.E. on “Put ‘Em Up,” and later, Dirt McGirt on “Pop Shit.” Through it all Pharrell continues to bask in the limelight for this series of club pleasers.

Mixed in with the sure-fire hip-hop hits, you can find dub-based dancehall (Supercat’s Don of the Don’s), a smooth female R & B track (Vanessa Marquez’s “Good Girl”), even pop punk and, alt rock (High Speed Scene’s “Fuckin’ Spend” and Spymob’s “Half Steering”). The Neptunes manage to bridge the gap between alt-rock and hip-hop on N.E.R.D.’s Queen Spin-off, “Loser,” in which a rock chorus proclaiming “We will not be the losers” plays against fast-firing hip-hop verses.

As long as The Neptunes keep pushing the envelope with novel iterations of the pop formula, it seems they can only extend their influence. It’s a refreshing change to see beatmakers with undeniable skill exert their influence on the pop charts. After all, The Neptunes crossover success signals a growing mainstream appreciation for the hip-hop aesthetic, and promises to make room for all of those highly skilled yet little known MCs and DJs yet to make their mark outside the underground.

Archived article by Andrew Gilman