October 20, 2007

Drink Coasters: The Neptunes Present...Clones (August 19, 2003)

I've read online of a survey, done around the 2003-2004 timeframe, which proved that Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, the Wonder Twins known as the Neptunes, were responsible for at least 43% of the songs on the radio at that time. That is not a typo: The Neptunes were responsible for producing damn near half of all songs heard on the radio in 2003 and 2004. (What surprises me the most is how many country and salsa jams they had their hands in, but the survey conveniently left those numbers on the cutting room floor.)

Anyway, Pharrell and (the currently-M.I.A.) Chad had their humble starts in the music industry, working for Teddy Riley, whom I understand doesn't like either one of them at the moment. Their production work started off with artists of no consequence, like SWV and Total, before moving on to the likes of Ma$e, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and Shawn Carter. However, it was their work on Queensbridge rapper Noreaga's debut album that would define their status as the Next Big Thing; their production work on "Superthug" was different, catchy, and not at all what you would expect to hear on an album by someone like Noreaga. (Ironically, this song also cemented Nore's name into the music industry's subconscious, and it would lead him into some questionable musical choices, such as reggaeton and death polka, a genre that, sadly, took off and is enjoying success in Antarctica.) After this from-left-field hit, the Neptunes were in high demand, and produced (arguably) some of the catchiest hip hop of the past ten years. (Of course, they have been met with a lot of criticism that all of their beats sound similar, and those complaints aren't without merit, but for sake of argument we'll notice that this is a "Drink Coaster" post and move on.)

Fresh from their rise to power, Chad and Skateboard P decided to release their "debut", The Neptunes Present...Clones, in 2003. The reason for its existence is twofold: ostensibly, it was to be a showcase for their Star Trak vanity label, which the Neptunes had been threatening us with ever since The Clipse saw their first album shelved. However, when you read the back of the CD case and the liner notes, keeping a mental tally of all of the A-list superstars that pop up during the course of the disc, you realize the reason P and Chad created the disc was, simply, because they could. They had created both major and minor radio hits with almost every artist on the disc, and called in a lot of favors to drum up interest. (This would be the album's downfall, for those keeping score.)

The Neptunes Present...Clones begins with a tedious rap album intro by Pharrell, who, while I'm on the subject, is one of the major problems with Clones; he pops up on too many of the damn songs, in my opinion, but I guess it's our own damn fault for paying attention to all of those radio hits that list "featuring Pharrell Williams" in their credits. (For his part, Chad remains behind the scenes, possibly "producing" almost every song, but if I were to guess, I would believe that Clones may be among the many reasons that you don't read Chad's name in album credits anymore.)

Clones is the type of album that would benefit from the inclusion of a complete discography of every song the Saturns had produced up until that point; the listener would enjoy more with a roadmap that would assist with tracking how the likes of Busta Rhymes and (groan) Nelly ended up here. Mr. Rhymes drops off an inane ode to the booty, "Light Your Ass On Fire", which is only memorable in its video form, with which you can shut off the power and leave your house, hopefully on the way to the store to return this CD. In a bizarre twist, the Jupiters provide Ludacris (and his weed carrier, I-20) with a recycled beat; I was surprised to learn that Pharrell himself has a song on the soundtrack to Taxi 3 (a French film, not a sequel to that Jimmy Fallon-Queen Latifah bullshit) called "Where's Yours At", that uses the exact same beat as Luda's "It Wasn't Us". The thing is, Skateboard P sounds better on the track. Yeah, I never thought I would type that sentence either, but it just happened.

Pharrell brings his falsetto voice back to the public eye on the album's first single, "Frontin'", which features a phoned-in cameo by Jay-Z and needless posturing on behalf of P. An artist signed to the Star Trak label, someone you've never heard of named Vanessa Marquez, sings a song that is so unmemorable, I'm not even going to bother writing out the name of it, because that would only make you curious. Nelly was forced, by threats of beatings with skateboards and saxophones, to record "If" as a favor for his radio smash "Hot In Herre", and rap/sings it as if under duress. No-name artists like Roscoe P. Coldchain (whom I have never liked) and some guy who has the balls to call himself "Snoop Dogg" (what kind of name is that??) turn in ridiculously godawful performances that are so bad, gold and platinum plaques should be revoked by the RIAA.

Oddly, in the center of the listening experience, the Mercuries actually step out of the studio and allow two rock acts to do their thing. Spymob, the group that was and will always be best known as 'the rock group that played live instruments for the stateside version of N*E*R*D's In Search Of...', both destroy their music industry cred and discredit their fanbase with "Half-Steering", while The High Speed Scene, who I believe was never actually signed to Star Trak in the first place, submit "Fuck N Spend", which isn't terrible. The placement of these two songs in the album's sequencing is an indicator of the many problems of Clones; P and Chad apparently wanted to take over every musical genre on the radio four years before fellow VA resident Timbaland would attempt a similar feat. As rock and roll music doesn't figure into the album at any other point, and they didn't even produce either song, both could have been dropped without a moment's hesitation. (Personally, I've always wondered why Kenna, an artist whose debut album was produced by Chad, is a no-show on Clones, while Roscoe P. Coldchain somehow appears twice.)

The aforementioned N*E*R*D (Pharrell and Chad's rock group, along with their weed carrier Shay, who, to my knowledge, doesn't do a fucking thing in the trio) contributes a track that sounds like they actively wanted to make a song that would both sound awful and make you hate Queen (the obvious influence), and in those terms, they succeed. They also decide to handicap Noreaga's career by having him appear on the dull and tired "Put 'Em Up". Kelis, who was still signed to the Star Trak label when Clones was released, has one of her earlier songs, "Popular Thug", raped and pillaged, in the form of an additional tacked-on verse from her future husband Nasir Jones; however, I suppose that fact shouldn't really matter to the American audience, since they would have never heard the album that the original "Popular Thug" appears on; it was released in European markets only.

Clones isn't completely without merit. It's the nature of a collaborative gumbo like this to provide at least one song that isn't horrible: Clones provides three, all of which appear in the second half of the disc. Surprisingly, Fam-Lay's "Rock N Roll" rides a dark and menacing, yet club friendly, beat with the sufficient rhymes that you would expect from a Clipse disciple. Speaking of, The Clipse hand over "Hot Damn", which is promoted as being (in the first three seconds of the song itself) a "less harsh" edit of Lord Willin's "Cot Damn"; it's not until you hear the word "motherfucker" several times before you realize that Pharrell is a liar. And as a Wu junkie, it shouldn't really surprise you that Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Pop Shit" was the song I found the most enjoyable, although it's an incredible departure from the Wu-Tang sound. That being said, you could live a full and complete existence without ever having heard any of these three songs.

The Uranuses have made an album simply because they have clout; it's kind of like Here Comes The Fuzz with a much bigger budget. Clones went on to debut at number one on the Billboard charts and made bona-fide stars out of the production super-geniuses. However, their master plan, which I believe wholeheartedly was to secretly destroy the careers of the stars they helped create, all while becoming superstars in their own right, would ultimately backfire: most of the rappers presented on Clones went on to create fantastic work after 2003 ended, including The Clipse, Snoop, and, surprisingly, Nelly. (I have to admit, "Flap Your Wings" is actually a pretty good Neptunes/Nelly collaboration; I wonder why it didn't take off in the States.) I realize Clones isn't meant to be the album that you zone out to, thinking philosophical thoughts while stoned out of your fucking mind; it's meant to get the girls to shake their asses at the club. On that point, Clones is also a massive failure; the beats are supposed to be representative of a newer sound P and Chad were developing, but that all seems to be a work in progress. Do yourself a favor and avoid this album's empty calories, and go feed yourself something that has a little bit of substance.


Pharrell - In My Mind


  1. that's a bit harsh. I know opinions are like assholes, but I thought that album was pretty good...in a getting-girls-to-shake-their-asses kinda way

  2. Just another example of Kenna getting it with no vaseline. Happy October 45th!!!

  3. well - said.
    i hate the neptunes

  4. Speaking of Kenna, I've been meaning to get off of my lazy ass and write about his first CD and possibly pick up the second one - I've heard some things.

    Randy - I liked Clones when it first dropped as well - well, actually, I liked only a handful of songs (Vanessa Marquez? What the hell?), but I liked them a lot more in 2003 than I do now. The songs, with the exception of what I listed, don't truly hold up in 2007. And this is coming from a fan of the Neptunes, albeit one which is incredibly annoyed that Chad seems to have produced Kenna's second album and then jumped onto his spaceship. And trust me, if you've seen some of the other posts, this is not me being harsh.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. gave the album another listen and must admit you do have a point as far as the tracks sounding quite dated now. I have a tendency to give mediocre mailed-in verses a pass on producer-albums (I really like Shock Value), which may be why I enjoy the empty calories.

    Beatwise, I miss Chad too, but they're recording a new NERD album, which probably means a Neptunes comeback in '08

  6. I admit, I play this album a lot when I'm at work. But I couldn't tell you what any of the songs on it sound like. I consider it background noise, if anything. Just something to throw on shuffle.

  7. why didnt u comment on the supercat & jadakiss song?