US - Virginia - Full Moon 86 - 10/10/03
The Neptunes presents... Clones
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