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Good beats have been compared to drugs for most of hiphop’s existence, but this year, the metaphor took a hyperspace leap for two unassuming dudes from southern Virginia: Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, aka the Neptunes, became the supreme pushermen of hiphop and R&B production.

Need evidence that record execs have been slobbering on themselves while waiting to snatch a piece of the Neptunes’ percussive, unpredictable audio narcotica? Look at the ever-growing list of artists who have used the duo recently: The commercial prospects of discs by Ja Rule, Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, LL Cool J, Toni Braxton, and Justin Timberlake were unquestionably improved by the presence of Williams and Hugo’s quirked-up talents, even if on just one track.

None of those popsters needed major help moving units, but working with the Neptunes ensured brand-name recognition. And big-budget urban music is far from outgrowing its obsession for designer goods of any sort. In its November issue, Blender went so far as to ask, “Are the Neptunes driving other producers out of business?” The answer was, in some cases, yes.

But here’s what separates Williams and Hugo from your average music-industry mafiosi: They’re so damn nice about it. “They need to give more people more chances,” Williams once said about the major-label tastemakers. He was talking specifically about young kids trying to break into the biz, but the comment easily could’ve applied to folks such as Dr. Dre and Timbaland, two A-list hiphop producers who seemed to lose luster while the ‘Tunes took over the block.

So what’s the cultural significance of all this? Like any well-schooled dealers of controlled substances, the Neptunes have learned that it’s best to deliver the product and stay clear of the consequences. Urban radio buys in bulk, and it tends to have a short memory. Williams and Hugo engineer their grooves for maximum impact, with layers of hooks that usually hold up for the first five or 10 listens—which is more than enough to allow a song to become a heavy-rotation head-nodder (N.O.R.E.’s “Nothin’”), pop-culture fodder (Nelly’s “Hot in Herre”), or even a new classic (Clipse’s “Grindin’”). In most cases, the marketplace remembers the groove more than the rhyme. In 2002, the marketplace had no choice.

Williams and Hugo just might be artistes underneath all that commerce, though. Even a forgettable sex track such as Jay-Z’s “F**k All Nite,” from the so-so double-disc-er The Blueprint2: The Gift & the Curse, demonstrates a noticeable Neptunian musical intelligence. The bass line sounds like detached Steely Dan, and the processed female voices and spacey noises add a pleasant air of old-school cheese. It’s smart yet unintellectual, like most of the cuts on In Search of…, Williams and Hugo’s own disc as N.E.R.D.

But that song was also proof that the Neptunes will cut corners when nobody’s paying attention. Could they be getting stingier with their top-notch material? If that’s the case, Jay-Z was smart to limit the amount of work he gave them on The Blueprint2, allowing skilled up-and-comers such as Just Blaze and Kanye West most of the production credits. Of course, Williams and Hugo’s presence ensured that Jay-Z’s name would stay on the charts—which has been his M.O. since Day 1.

While Jay-Hova and the other big shots got bigger by taking fewer chances, however, the rest of the ever-expanding hiphop world offered a healthy dose of surprises, comebacks, and career-defining moments, many of which had no connection to the Neptunes whatsoever—a fact that seems almost necessary to point out this year. Here’s a look at the best 2002 had to offer, N.E.R.D.-y and not:

I Phantom, Mr. Lif He sounds like Rakim, rails like Michael Moore, and backs it all up with the most clear-headed beats in the Def Jux canon. The result is the best hiphop concept-album since Digital Underground’s Sex Packets. Mr. Lif’s beef is simple: Living life as a normal guy sucks big time, and trying to buck society’s expectations is a lose-lose proposition. But there’s no neatly tied-up American Beauty-style ending here. Instead, Lif blows everything to shit in a nuclear blast. Now that’s entertainment.

Original Pirate Material, the Streets A snot-nosed, hiphop-worshiping Brit wisely decides that copping an American flow would be utterly ridiculous, so he spits sublime Birminghamese over laptop beats that sound just foreign enough to be credible in their own clickety-clack way. Mike Skinner is the savvy slacker Everyman behind the Streets, and it now appears that America will never know how much it needs him: The music mags hyped our man from the beginning, but so far, MTV and pop radio have dropped the ball.

From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots, Dalek The cacophony of Dalek’s live gigs is becoming legendary, but this 11-track LP is sweetly abusive and expansively thunderous in its own right. The rapper/producer and his band of sonic experimentalists respect hiphop as much as the next guy, but they’re exponentially more pissed off about its current state of corruption. Underneath it all, though, From Filthy Tongue is a love letter to both music and spirituality.

All of the Above, J-Live In which the former teacher from Brooklyn nails the early-’90s Native Tongues vibe without rehashing that scene’s wide-eyed hiphop discoveries. J-Live’s down-to-earth attitude and sharp ear for top-shelf traditionalist beats are more than refreshing: All of the Above is the year’s best proof that old-school aesthetics don’t have to be condemned to a future of MTV lip service and cheesy album skits.

Phrenology, the Roots Philly’s finest finally cut loose, and even the mistakes sound inspired. (What’s that punk song doing in there? And Nelly Furtado?) Black Thought has never been more electrified on disc, and his badass boasts alone separate Phrenology from the rest of his group’s catalog. Meanwhile, drummer ?uestlove points his kit at some honest-to-goodness breakbeats, giving the rest of the Roots access to a rockbox that had previously been locked tight.

The Private Press, DJ Shadow Only someone with a monklike personality and a geek’s attention to detail could’ve created The Private Press, which treats fey ’60s obscurities and snare-heavy glitch-beats—and pretty much any musical obscurity in between—with the same level of funkified affection. That’s what separates Shadow from all of the other DJs: It’s not about rep, it’s not about style—it’s about putting everything in its place. But we’re not talking taxonomy here: We’re talking hiphop, and Shadow’s turntablism speaks it with the coolest accent you’ve ever heard.

Blazing Arrow, Blackalicious Frontman Gift of Gab wants a hiphop revolution with a low body count, but unlike the never-ending stream of well-read MCs who are wistful for better days, he’s willing to accept a certain amount of psychic discomfort while riding in the way-back machine. His rapid-fire lyrics and producer Chief Xcel’s fusion-flavored thump-ups are often smarter than they sound on first listen.

Fantastic Damage, El-P El-Producto won’t win the Most Succinct MC Award, so it makes sense that he released Fantastic Damage Plus: Remixes & Instrumentals for heads who don’t want too many lyrics impeding their PlayStation sessions. But his dark metaphors and oblique sociopolitical references more than reward your undivided attention. Even better, his gutteriffic groove-making skills possess a few hundred more hit points than anything else in hiphop’s catacombs.

The Fix, Scarface Put on the ex-Geto Boy’s seventh disc after listening to The Eminem Show—it’s like watching Braveheart after Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The 30-something Scarface makes the subtle argument that being a one-man army—even an aging one—is preferable to having a thousand sycophantic sympathizers. Not quite a comeback album in the purest sense of the term, but one that recalls the best of gangsta rap’s culture-shocking heyday.

Lord Willin’, Clipse Both unapologetically Southern and sonically galactic, Lord Willin’ is the disrespectful second cousin of OutKast’s landmark Stankonia. Malice and Pusha T probably wouldn’t have a career without the disc’s heavy payload of magic Neptunes dust, but the Virginia Beach siblings handle their end of the transaction without flinching. The clicks, thumps, and boasts of “Grindin’” made the summer that much better, and the rest of the disc puts the customer first without kissing anybody’s ass. CP