It would be cliché to say that the Neptunes need no introduction. But the truth is that-if you're reading this-you have at least a passing knowledge of the Neptunes. You've danced to their revolutionary sound, from Nelly's "Hot In Herre" to Jay-Z's "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It to Me)" to Britney Spears' "I'm A Slave 4 U" to Clipse's "Grindin'" to Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass" to Usher's "U Don't Have to Call" to Busta Rhymes' "Pass the Courvoisier" to Snoop Dogg's "Beautiful" to Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Got Your Money" to N.O.R.E.'s "Nothin'" to... Well, the point is that production wizards Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo have been making the soundtrack to your days, nights and everything in between for the past few years.
Which brings us to The Neptunes Present . . . Clones, the duo's new CD, released on their Star Trak/Arista label. "The purpose of this record is we don't want people to have to go buy 15 different million albums when they want to hear our sound," says Pharrell. "They could just go and buy one album."
Pharrell's statement is a bit misleading. There's not really a Neptunes "sound." Sure there's Pharrell's sublime songwriting, at once classic and contemporary, which is often delivered via his Mayfield-esque falsetto. Sure, there's the signature drums-always crisp but somehow dirty; meticulous yet humanly sloppy, like live playing. Sure, there's the old soul infused by the layered instrumentation, which often defies description and leaves music aficionados scratching their heads while shaking their derrieres. But there's no real "sound" that can connect say, Justin Timberlake's "Like I Love You" to LL Cool J's "Luv U Better."
"It's just eclectic," says Pharrell. "It's coming from all different directions. It's not what you use, it's how you use it."
And how the Neptunes use the studio, themselves, their friends and their label artists on Neptunes Present...Clones is astounding. The first single "Frontin'" finds Pharrell coming to the forefront with a guest appearance from Jay-Z. Eschewing the reigning orthodoxy of playaism, the song finds the two displaying a refreshing sense of vulnerability and maturity over a summery groove. "Every time your name was bought up I would act all nonchalant in front of a audiance," raps Jay to the recipient of his affection. " Like you was just another shorty I put the naughty on/ But truth be told, you threw me for a loop.../I'm too old to be frontin' when I'm feelin you'."
Similarly, Star Trak's vibrant siren Kelis teams up with rap-poet Nas over battering bass movements for "Popular Thug," a restructuring of the same song which originally appeared on the European release of Kelis' Wanderland with the Clipse. "It's different now because she really is with a popular thug," says Pharrell. "That's her fiancée and it tells the story better. They're letting the world know." While Nas declares himself "a thief who stole her heart/A prince she deserves," Kelis confesses that Queensbridge's finest has the ability to "make my record skip."
But The Neptunes Present...Clones is far from a Valentine's Day affair. Star Trak's Rosco P. Coldchain teams up with label-mates Clipse, a spare big beat experimentation on "This Beat Is..." Over the sound of reversing vinyl, a slow burning tale of a bank robbery and an escape to Utah is delivered with gritty, quirky details that would be at home in a Guy-Ritchie flick. "I'm Da Vinci," raps Rosco. "Don't make me draw your pain."
Clipse places another guest appearance, but with Star Trak's Ab-Liva to discharge hardcore boasts, drug-dealing lamentations and gilded trapping of success on the fleet stepping, swing jazz-influenced "Blaze of Glory." Clipse member Malice divulges that he's on some "get rich quick shit," while his brother Pusha T declares himself " a killer in the clutch like the Lakers' Horry with four seconds left." For his part, Philly's Ab-Liva makes it known that "my story is metric/Sometimes no electric/ It was hectic."
Though Clipse, Ab-Liva and Rosco P. Coldchain all appear on "Hot Damn," the searing remix of "Cot Damn" from Clipse's gold-selling debut Lord Willin', other artists are allowed to get in on the fun on The Neptunes Present...Clones. Dirt McGirt, the artist formerly known as Ol' Dirty Bastard is in vintage form over the liquid-wristed, unremitting guitar chords of the aptly titled "Pop Shit." Dirt's patented erratic energy spills all over the track as he professes to "catch bitches like trout/get drunk off stout" while conversely claiming to be "cooler than a Maybach." It's truly a beautiful thing. "Dirt is always incredible," says Pharrell. "He will never cease to amaze you. He just does whatever the hell he wants to do, says whatever he wants to say and it's always intriguing. It's funny but dope; dope but funny."
Dope and funny describes the Busta Rhymes vehicle "Light your Ass on Fire." "That song is for all the girls-it'll just light your ass on fire," says Pharrell with a laugh. Filled with echoing claps, quivering taps, and space-like blips, the cavernous track sounds something like what "I'm a Slave 4 U" would sound like if it were recorded in the underground holding cells of 12 Monkeys. "I had a really, really long talk with Busta and I was like, 'Bus, you really gotta black out on this one." Busta was up to the task. He welcomes you to "hot and hazyville" while telling well-endowed young women that "you really need a tabloid to cover your ass."
Moving to the Caribbean, dancehall reggae legend and new Star Trak Artist, Super Cat lends his smooth singsong vocals to "Don of Dons" featuring rhyme vixen Foxy Brown. Over an unrelenting, circular accordion loop, Cat interpolates "Soul Makossa," pays tribute to late reggae icon Tenor Saw, and affirms his position as one of dancehall's elite. The Don of Dons returns with "Lady," an Island-tinged piece of lover's rock laden with steel drum-like dings and computerized bleeps that introduces the uninitiated to his laid-back sexual style. For those in the know, it's a return to a classic form that has been sorely missed in the states.
Vanessa Marquez, the urban songstress recently signed to Star Trak, , emerges with "Good Girl," a lovelorn tale that recalls 80's, Jam & Lewis-like R&B replete with Latin congas. "This song has no notes/So what will the angels sing?" serenades the 21-year-old chanteuse.
But The Neptunes Present...Clones wouldn't be a true Neptunes venture without screaming episodes of mosh-pitting rock music from the fringes of society. "I ride my BMX/ I smoke my Cali weed," declare newcomers High Speed Scene on "For The Kids," a number that sounds like pierced and tattooed riding bicycles while giving the middle finger to gas guzzling SUVs. "I'm gonna save you with a song," declares the group with rebellious energy. Spymob, the Minnesota-based rock & soul band that played studio sessions and live shows for the gold-selling Neptunes, side-project N*E*R*D, offers an astounding cover of Babyface's "I Love You Babe." "Spymob is incredible," says Pharrell. "The sound line Philly dance stuff-meets-Todd Rundgren. They did their own music, just like High Speed Scene."
N*E*R*D themselves make an appearance with Clipse on "Loser," an alternative rock anthem of determination and alienation which is also featured on the forthcoming "Madden 2004" console game. "We will not be the losers/Sorry but we're not the ones," they sing.
The Neptunes Present...Clones makes it clear that neither the Neptunes nor their listeners will be the losers. "The title, The Neptunes Present...Clones doesn't refer to beat-biters or anything like that," says Pharrell. "It's a statement to ourselves to inspire us to keep coming up with things that are new and fresh and not clone ourselves."
The Neptunes Present...Clones will be released though Star Trak/Arista on August 19th.
07 - 2003