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You kid-averse folks will just have to trust me on this one: The sustained, beat-shilling world domination of the Neptunes makes a lot more sense after you’ve braved a Babies “R” Us. In this altogether terrifying store, monitors and bouncy seats and play yards all feature speakers that emit the same sound: the simulated thump-thump-thump of a mama’s heart mixed with the swish and gurgle of her gutthat is, “the natural sounds of the womb.” According to those fiendish manipulators at Fisher-Price, newborns really like these rather creepy noises, because they’re the only thing they’ve been hearing for the past nine months.
That, of course, is where the Neptunes come in. I didn’t much like the Virginia Beach, Va.-based producing duospecifically, their offshoot
pop-funk project, N*E*R*Dwhen I first heard them. You know the signature sound: the wicked, defibrillating bass foundation; the stuttering four-beat sample of brass or synth or soulful guitar; the short, dumb hook repeated over and over. They seem to craft every feel-good, sexed-up cutwhether for Nelly (“Hot in Herre”) or Snoop Dogg (“Beautiful”) or even Justin Timberlake (“Like I Love You”)on the basis of two guiding principles: (1) A listener must be able to hum along to each one of a song’s simplistic layers, and (2) a stripper must be able to take it off to ’em. They also like Off the Wall way too much.
But lately, I can’t get enough of the reclusive Chad Hugo and the gone-Hollywood Pharrell Williams. In fact, I flat-out love them, and I take back any reservations I’ve ever expressed about N*E*R*D and its lapdanceable debut, In Search Of…. To account for this not-so-sudden change of opinion, I’m taking the Babies “R” Us defense: On the radio, on MTV, on almost every album by almost every friggin’ artist, the Neptunes’ sound is the only thing I’ve been hearing for the last nine months. By selling out to all bidders, the now-ubiquitous producers have created an inescapable boom-boom womb, and, tough shit, I ain’t leaving.
Why would I want to? The new The Neptunes Present…Clones, the 18-track compilation that officially kicks off the ‘Tunes’ own Star Trak label, is the most consistently fun example of what these two talented, shameless men do so well. Using a smorgasbord of easy hooks and backside-in-motion beatsnot to mention a Who’s Who of who’s hot in the music bizthe producers sell the beds, bongs, and booze lifestyle like never before. Call me shallow, but that means a lot to a bouncy-seat-buying guy being thrust simultaneously into fatherhood and suburbia.
Clones goes to extremes to show off the Neptunes’ eclectic collective ear. Although the disc is loaded with ultraslick, radio-ready combinations of R&B, rap, and hiphop, a rather Weezer-y cut by Minneapolis rockers Spymob (four goofy white dudes who back N*E*R*D) and a snappy pop-punk number by the High Speed Scene are put smack-dab in the middle of the mix. Do these songs fit? No. Will most listeners give them a second spin? Probably not. Are they fun anyway? You bet your rock-posing ass.
That said, the Neptunes have always done urban grooves best, and when a big-time MC or R&B crooner hooks up with the hitmakers, both sides almost always bring their A-game. Here, Busta Rhymes big-bad-wolfs it up on the funky “Light Your Ass on Fire,” a woofer-rumbler that promises to shatter both car windows and anybody’s post-“Baby Got Back” fears that having a bubble butt isn’t a good thing. Pharrell, whose ’70s-style falsetto croon is all over Clones, takes the lead on first single “Frontin’”then gives the sure-thing pickup line to the always-impeccable Jay-Z. And Dirt McGirt (aka Big Baby Jesus aka Ol’ Dirty Bastard) is handed the keys to the hilarious “Pop Shit,” which sounds like the first-ever ragtime rap and is as messy with police sirens and rife with lyrical nonsense as his life.
Although those songs are certainly good, two on Clones are absolutely great. “It Wasn’t Us” just might be the rap track of the year: With assists from I-20 and a marching-band-on-X beat, class-clown Ludacris quick-lips the pitfalls of stardomand
how he and his crew have dodged every one. The last-man-standing rhymes are shot out machine-gun style, but not so fast that you can’t sing along: “You could sell about two mil/Get hooked with a good deal/And start stackin’ dough/You could get your mobiles/Ride 20-inch big wheels/And collect some hos/You could even start eatin’ good and smokin’ good/But you’re pressing your luck/And you say, ‘What?/Somebody went bankrupt?’/But it wasn’t us.”
Clones’ other killer cut, “It Blows My Mind,” proves that Snoop is back and baked for good. With the notably straitlaced Pharrell cooing the hook (“The chronic’s blowing/The chronic’s blowing”) as if he means it, SD raps the praises of pot as if he really were “Bob Marley reincarnated.” The too-cool slow jam floats in a THC-tinged haze of old-school horn samples, a trippy xylophone riff, and the Doggfather rhyming, “Don’t go against me fool/Go wit’ me/We can blow it all together like Bobby Brown and Whitney.” Invest in Visine now.
There are a few nonstarters sprinkled throughout Clones, a title whose good-natured self-mockery will probably be lost on the unconverted. Nelly’s “If,” for example, is a tired retread of “Herre,” and the lone N*E*R*D offering, “Loser” is an uninspired reimaging of OutKast’s “The Whole World.” Still, the Neptunes’ tricks are still a treat. In fact, there’s a very good chance that Hugo and Pharrell will get tired of their sound before the rest of us do. Maybe they’ll get into jazz. Or maybe they’ll bring back hair metalwhich seems just about as likely. Or maybe, just maybe, they’ll do me a favor and sign a deal with Fisher-Price. CP