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The Neptunes
The Neptunes presents... Clones
Star Trak

Hip-hop is a fast-moving genre. With more innovation and redefinition per annum than virtually any other musical form, it relies almost perpetually on the shock of the new. This creates problems for even the most sacred of cows. The diminishing returns Public Enemy delivered on their early 90s records warranted little sentimentality from the hip-hop purist. When the Wu Tang Clan finally delivered their second album, it almost collapsed under the sheer weight of expectation and anticipation unleashed by their debut, and successive solo efforts by Method Man, Raekwon and Genius. The term 'long-awaited' doesn't really carry much weight in rap.

By rights The Neptunes presents... Clones should prove a massive letdown. Almost defining the phrase 'over-exposed', Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo have no other producer peers but Timbaland, and similarly manage to straddle the hard-to-please hip-hop fraternity with the pop crowd. You have already loved, danced or sang along to the Neptunes, whether you know it or not. Lending their sparse, flinty production values and song-writing fluidity to artists as diverse as Britney Spears, Kelis and Snoop Dogg, it's tempting to see them as some sort of Motown of the modern world. Instantly recognisable, each successive bomb from the Neptunes stable seemed to move the formula on, yet retained an effortless freshness about it that you thought they'd never dry up. They're so cool even their first full album came out under a different name (N.E.R.D.), and was immediately deleted to make way for a new version, fully re-recorded with 'proper' instruments.

Last year's collaboration with ex-boy band puppet Justin Timberlake should have seen their hip-hop stock plummet. Instead, it had critics and pop-kids alike salivating at the thought of a new Michael Jackson, a Tennessee whiteboy reinvented as a groovy, off-the-wall hero. Finally releasing a record as The Neptunes, Clones amazingly avoids the pitfalls of over-familiarity to refine the formula yet further. The first release on the producers' new imprint, Star Trak, the record stands almost as a showcase for future artists as much as a summation of the story so far.

The sense of invention is palpable. When "Rock n' Roll", featuring Fam-Lay, lays out some Kraftwerk synth-strings over a rolling, loping beat and an ominous bass, the contrast with lead-off single "Frontin" - all choppy R&B guitar and sweet Pharrell falsetto - is marked. Neptunes regulars Clipse make a couple of appearances, first on the machine-gun bass and soul-blast horns of "Blaze Of Glory", and later on the joyous funk of "Hot Damn". Most obviously, Williams and Hugo don their N.E.R.D. hats on "Loser", the third in an incongruous run of guitar-based tracks. Not the most successful of experiments, "Fuck n' Spend" at least shows how easy it must be for all those dumb-ass (supposedly) punk bands to peddle their derivative moaner-rebellion.

Far more welcome is the return of wayward genius Ol' Dirty Bastard, as Dirt McGirt, on the insanely catchy "Pop Shit", proving amid off-kilter piano and sirens that he's physically incapable of making a dull record. Likewise, Busta Rhymes pops up early on, waxing mental over the space-ball ricochet beat of "Light Your Ass On Fire". Even Nelly refrains from being thoroughly objectionable, on the surprisingly touching "If", showing that if some of hip-hop's more tedious characters just laid off trying to impress us all the time, they might just make more of an impression. Check out Rosco P Coldchain, for example: a lazy style, for sure, but far more charismatic than the so-cool-I-can't-be-arsed, stroke-victim excuse for a flow of 50 Cent. Mind you, Roscoe would be hard pushed not to sound cool on the Peter Piper backwards-shit of "Hot".

By the time you get to "Popular Thug", the thoroughly modern love song played out by real-life couple Kelis and Nas, the big names have been flying thick and fast. The beauty of all Neptunes records, though, is that neither guest nor producers outweigh each other. Clones could easily have been some horrible vanity project, as The Neptunes, in the career arc to which neither pop nor hip-hop are strangers, very quickly disappeared up their own arses. Thankfully, they have, at last, produced a startling debut that doesnâ?Tt disappoint.

Copyright © 2003 James Caig e-mail address

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