Beats have always been a major aspect in hip-hop since they can make or break an album. While many lyrical emcees like Ras Kass, Canibus, and others have put out albums that lack in strong beats, other poor emcees have put out albums with incredible beats even though their lyrics and flows are horrible. The beat is usually the first thing you hear. While many people do focus on the lyrics, it’s the body that feels the beat. Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo make up The Neptunes and they have mastered the art of making deep, funky, unique beats. There is a pimped out feel to their production style along with some electronica and soul too. Mix that with Pharrell’s singing, the result is like a hip-hop Curtis Mayfield. Neptunes hailed from Virginia and first made some serious noise with the production on “Superthug” by Noreaga. After a while, they began to produce for many emcees like Jay-Z, Common, Ol Dirty Bastard, Jadakiss, and more. The Neptunes have been responsible for some timeless hip-hop hits like “Shake Ya Ass” by Mystikal, “Give It To Me (I Just Want To Love You)” by Jay-Z, “Beautiful” by Snoop Dogg, “What It Is” by Busta Rhymes and “Nothin” by Noreaga. Their status went higher and higher and soon commercial acts like Britney Spears, Nelly, and Justin Timberlake were hiring them for their hit-making talents. While they have produced entire albums for Kelis and Clipse, it is their Star Trak label that they seem to truly love. The N.E.R.D. project was decent success since it cross genres of hip-hop and rock. In the summer of 2003, The Neptunes have returned with “Clones”, a compilation that is mainly hip-hop but has a little bit of that indie-rock and hardcore that was evident in the N.E.R.D. album. Even though top-notch guests like Nelly, Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, Jadakiss, and Nas all have significant roles on the album, the production is truly the star. Pharrell does do some of his falsetto Curtis Mayfield-type singing on a couple of songs too. While N.E.R.D. had some strange and deep metaphors (like looking at the similarities between politicians and strippers), a majority of the “Clones” album is the typical flossy, shake your ass hip-hop that is made for the radio. Still, the beats are have a thick, soulful feel that your body loves even if your mind does not. Basically, “Clones” is a compilation of new collaborations of people that The Neptunes have worked with in the past.
Without a doubt, the best songs on “Clones” are either the ones with strong emcees or the ones where Pharrell sings. “Frontin” (featuring Jay-Z) is the lead single as well as a very unique and honest love song. The slow/mid-tempo beat literally glides with some funky and poignant guitar sounds as Pharrell’s high-pitched voice sings about relationships. The Neptunes used a similar guitar sound for “Beautiful” by Snoop Dogg. While it does have that macked-out quality, there is a vulnerability to it. “I was just frontin’”, he sings. It truly is a funny and honest portrayal on how people deal with relationships and the walls we build around ourselves. Jay-Z only has one little verse but it is just enough. The song does not need him since it is strong enough without him, but it still does work very well. “Pop Sh*t” by Dirt McGirt (formally Ol Dirty Bastard) is perfect and rambunctious for O.D.B.’s return as a free man. The beat truly pounds and will have people nodding heads and moving legs uncontrollably. As soon as the song begins, McGirt sings: “Guess who’s home! Guess who’s home! Guess who’s home!” It’s a perfect party starter while remaining hardcore at the same time. O.D.B.’s never been a great lyricist but it’s the energy and sheer insanity that makes him so charismatic. Neptunes and O.D.B. work extremely well together. (This fact was evident on his last album “N*gga Please” where the best songs were the ones produced by Neptunes). It’s a fun song that is completely crazy and very tight at the same time. Pharrell lends some vocals and gives the song a tight structure. Busta Rhymes is a very versatile emcee. He has created insane songs, romantic songs, hardcore street songs, party songs, as well as remakes. Busta and The Neptunes have been working together since “What It Is” off of “Violator 2.0” and also “Genesis” LP. Here, “Light Your Ass On Fire” is the album’s opening track. The thick, electronic beat has a jungle feel mixed in with a little Kraftwerk sample of "Trans-Europe Express". Busta Rhymes does dazzle the mic with his flow but his lyrics are just about women’s backsides. Basically, this is a shallow booty song. Pharrell sings/whispers the hook: “…Move girl! / Light that ass on fire!…” Sure, it is a fun song but it is a song that will and can be forgotten. There is also some inane reference to Navy Seals. The dope part about the song is the stellar production and smooth flow of Busta Rhymes along with the overall energy. “It Blows My Mind” by Snoop Dogg is a very nice weed song with some psychedelic keyboard effects. Pharrell sings, “The chronic’s blowing” as the beat floats the listener away. Another well-done song is “Blaze Of Glory” by Clipse
Some of the album’s better songs are by more unknown artists or surprising collaborations. The simplistic “Hot” by Rosco P. Coldchain, Boo-Bonic and Pusha T from Clipse works because of the cocky attitude. The beat is extremely simple but the overall feel of the song works. The bass line is so thick and muddy that it is sure to make the speakers rattle. “Loser” by N.E.R.D. featuring Clipse was a pleasant surprise. The thick drums and handclaps roll along as the melodies glide. “We will not be the losers”, is sung with conviction. Clipse works well on the track too. It is an anthem for success that is inspiring and uplifting. “The Don Of Dons (Put De Ting Pon Dem)” by Super Cat and Jadakiss has some deep, thick reggae rhythms. The Neptunes showed their talent for reggae on their work with Beanie Man (and he is missed on this project). The beat rolls along as Super Cat takes command of the track but it is the verse by Jadakiss that is the jewel of the song.
There are some songs that should have been dope but end up disappointing because the big stars are sleepwalking through their performances and just going through the motions. “Popular Thug” features Nas and Kelis on the album’s final track. The ingredients are all wonderful (dope production, a talented singer, and a deep lyrical emcee) but the outcome is not as wonderful as it could have been. It is something made for radio airplay. Kelis sings: “…Make my record skip, make my record skip, / I would have never talked to you / If I’d have known you were a popular thug…” The talent is there but there is nothing mind-blowing here. Still, the production along with the flow of Nas is something to be appreciated. In the past, Noreaga and The Neptunes have made some very dope tracks like “Oh No”, “Hysteria (Cocaine Business)”, “Nothin”, and “Superthug” but “Put Em Up” is just silly. N.O.R.E. actually jacks Run-Dmc’s “It’s Tricky”. Noreaga’s style is much more flossed out and less thugged-out. This is a southern hip-hop track and Noreaga attempts that double-time flow. Pharrell steals the entire track vocally too. The production has an up-beat high-hat that will make anyone start bouncing. This should have been used for someone like Cee-Lo or someone from The Dungeon Family. Two other tracks like “If” by Nelly and “It Wasn’t Us” by Ludacris all have well-executed production but just typical performances by the so-called top 10 commercial emcees. Even though Ludacris does bring humor to his track and Nelly brings melody to his, they do not have the power or passion as their previous Neptunes-produced hits.
Hip-hop is not the only thing The Neptunes are interested in. It is evident that they are into indie-rock and skater hardcore music. The 2 non-hip-hop songs are interesting but they break up the flow of the album. Spymob’s “Half-steering” sounds similar to Ben Fold’s Five with more electronic keyboard melodies to complement the guitar. While all of the instruments are crisp and clear that bad is obviously talented, the song is not mind blowing. It is not even produced by The Neptunes. It is produced by Alex Dana. Why is it even on here? It was not written by The Neptunes, wasn’t produced by The Neptunes, and doesn’t even feature The Neptunes! The following “F*ck It Spend” by The High Speed Scene also does not have any Neptunes production, performance, or writing. Produced by Dana Deathray, this 90 second hardcore track truly rocks. The drums and guitars also sound crisp while the lack of keyboards makes the hardcore rock feel stronger. “F*ck! F*ck! Spend money!”, is sung for the hook. As silly as it sounds, fans of hardcore music understand the tongue-in-cheek lyricism. While “F*ck It Spend” is an entertaining, energetic, and tight hardcore song, it is completely out of place on “Clones”.
Filler is something that curses almost every single hip-hop album. Compilations always have filler because it is impossible to please every single listener and here, The Neptunes attempt to do just that. “Cot Damn” by Clipse, Ab-Liva, Pharrell, and Rosco P. Coldchain has a boring beat with some keyboard horns on the boring hook that has Pharrell yelling: “Cot damn! It’s a new day!”. While the simple approach to the previous song “Hot” worked, the simplicity of “Cot Damn” is decent but does not impress. “Rock N Roll” by Fam-Lay has a typical Neptunes beat and tons of drug references. “I’ve got coke for sale / So much coke, I had coke in jail!” Here, Fam-Lay boasts about how drugs like Baby of Cash Money boasts about his diamonds. It’s nothing new. While it attempts to be hardcore, it comes across as cartoonish. Still, the beat is thick and will move your body. “Good Girl” by Vanessa Marquez is an attempt at a female-driven R&B radio hit. The song is just typical filler and begs for a guest emcee.
“Clones” is a production-driven album that attempts to please everybody by their big name guests but the production is what wins you over in the end. Unfortunately, many of the bigger names like Nelly and N.O.R.E. sleepwalk through their performances. The production is the true jewel of this album. Even the so-called filler songs have better produced beats than some of the best songs on today’s hip-hop LPs. On “Clones”, The Neptunes try to tackle all areas. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes, they barely make it. They rock out on 2 tracks. One works (“F*ck It Spend”) while the other does not impress (“Half-Steering”). Some of the tracks have typical shallow themes of jewelry, dancing and clubbing (“Light Your Ass On Fire” and “Rock N Roll”) while others attempt to have deeper meanings (“Loser”). While none of the songs are lyrically astute, the power comes in the production and the overall feel of the tracks. Dirt McGirt’s “Pop Sh*t”, Super Cat’s “The Don Of Dons” featuring Jadakiss, Clipse’s “Blaze Of Glory” all have that passion that made older Neptunes collaborations so special. The mostly-solo “Frontin”, where Pharrell sings for most of the track has that classic feel. This LP would have been incredible if Pharrell sung on most of the songs. Vocally, Pharrell is on less than half of the tracks. Perhaps, he will release a solo album in the future. “Frontin’” is without a doubt, the best song on the album. It is unique but at the same time, it has influences of past soul music. “Clones” is all over the place and the star-studded cast brings you in and gets your attention but does not have the substance to keep you for every track. While “Clones” is disappointing in many ways, every song has some excellent production. Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams are masters at making unique, complex rhythms that are funky, soulful, and passionate. You have to respect the fact that they try to open people’s minds as they go from genre to genre. While the Neptunes and the stars have all made classic hip-hop collaborations together, the best songs on “Clones” are the ones that are a little different. While The Neptunes are now apart of mainstream hip-hop (and other music), they are a talented and intelligent force. I would rather have them be on top than the incredibly simple Puffy Daddy or the overly materialistic Cash Money. While those two have a place, The Neptunes are doing something different while being apart of the mainstream at the same time. Their songs have become clones of their past hits. While these tracks have all of the ingredients of hit songs, not all of them have the same soul as a hit song. Even though they may very well become hit songs (like “Light Your Ass On Fire”), they are truly clones of hit hip-hop songs. Not every song works, but there is something in every song that should be appreciated. Most of the time, it is the production. Overall, “Clones” is entertaining and one of the better hip-hop compilation albums. While it is disappointing at times, “Clones” has excellent and thick production behind that all-star line-up.