If “Caught Out There” wasn’t one of the greatest debut singles of the ’90s — and it was, a ferocious contrast to her memorable if personality-concealing guest-star turn on (also ’99 Neptunes-produced) ODB classic “Got Your Money” — it at least had to be one of the most startling. (That I hate you so much right now hook is as directly, relatably pissed-in-love betrayed as it gets, though the way she growls/belts aaaagh in the midst of it proves it’s not all in the lyrics.) But Kelis can do way, way more than scream, and Kaleidoscope is built to prove it, from its slow-jam reveries to its aching anthems of desire. The Neptunes sounded fully-formed in unleashing their first full album-length slate of signature-sound beats — boasting an already hypernatural sense of surprisingly intricate percussive directness, lot-from-a-little synth riffage, and some of the giddiest computerworld melodic flourishes since peak Atari. And for the first of several times, Kelis’ and the Neptunes’ mutual-muse working relationship carried out a classic of leftfield R&B with better deep cuts (the oddly chirpy romantic ambivalence of “Game Show”; the ether frolic retrofuturist soul of “Suspended”; the crystalline palatial funk of “Roller Rink”) than records of this era are typically given credit for.
Here’s a funny thing about the Neptunes: for a group who ushered synthesized future-funk production through the last days of the recording industry’s bottomless-budget era, they sound remarkably minimalist. Consider the precedents and successors in their lineage, the digital-minded producers who wrung maximalist depth out of simplicity: compared to the cyberfunk Roland/Ensoniq gearheadedness of the Jam/Lewis ’80s and the Nicktoonish full-spectrum glitch overload of recent SOPHIE-and-scions hyperpop, Chad and Pharrell’s jams sound borderline austere.
But that’s one of the rare examples of austerity actually working for the masses, the simplicity of the idea that you need a Beat and you need a Hook and everything else is an asterisk. Why build a wall of sound when a patio door makes for more light and easier accessibility? And so they took over the world, at least for an unrelentingly transformative half-decade on the charts (and a fair amount of time afterwards), with their choppy-rolling symphonies to negative space sounding more punk-funk — or at least new [and] wavy — than Rick James’s wildest dreams.
Back in MC Hammer times, Pharrell Williams used to hang out with Virginia Beach buddies Timbaland and Magoo making boom-bap-goes-pop beats under the snarkily named collective Surrounded By Idiots. Turns out he’d surrounded himself with geniuses. He’d started working with Chad Hugo by the time the Neptunes-to-be found themselves under the aegis of Teddy Riley, right about the same time that Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411? popularized hip-hop production tropes for mainstream R&B. (One month after that album dropped, the Riley-produced Wreckx-n-Effect hip-hop crossover classic “Rump Shaker” gave Pharrell his first big-hit writing credit on a major hit record, though his contributions were strictly lyrical.)
But it was the Neptunes’ ’98 breakout, riding off a two-fer of hip-hop crossover hits for Ma$e (“Lookin’ At Me”) and Noreaga (“Superthug”), that made their trademark musical identity both immediately identifiable and provably successful. In part it’s because their musical components were so counterintuitively weird, building off the simplicity of the Korg Triton synthesizer and finding all the off-kilter ways they could break its limitations. Throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s, the Neptunes made a barrage of hits out of twangy/plinky synth hooks that pinged somewhere between guitar and harpsichord, rhythmic programming so crisp and tight and frictionless that their low-reverb impacts hit like a one-inch punch, and melodies that simultaneously vibed off celebratory invincibility and unresolved tension. Even Pharrell’s own voice, an askew falsetto like Curtis Mayfield trying to hold in a toke, sounded just disorientingly odd enough to make circa-2000 hits like Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)” and Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass” seem at least a bit alien.
Another reason The Neptunes so capably took over music is that their ascent, already co-signed by hip-hop and R&B’s most pop-savvy kingmakers, hit right when mainstream pop was in its first truly massive reckoning with the dominance of that crossover potential. When TRL-bred surname-unnecessary icons like Britney and Justin turned towards the Neptunes, it meant that not only were these performers looking to tap into a sound that was a bit more outlandish than their usual Euro-pop Max Martin machinery, it meant they were engaging with a hip-hop-rooted sound as a way to push themselves further into more innovative creative contexts.
That’s a big burden, having that much chart-busting weight resting on your sound — but it was a sound that proved as effective as it was omnipresent, whether you were into hardcore hip-hop (Fabolous’s “Young’n (Holla Back)”), rap’s pop-friendler club jams (Nelly’s “Hot In Herre”), or its Soulquarian/bohemian strains (Common’s “Come Close”). Expand that to cover top-shelf dancehall (Beenie Man’s Janet Jackson duet “Feel It Boy”), teen-pop maturation efforts (NSYNC’s “Girlfriend”), and VIP room R&B (Usher’s “U Don’t Have to Call”), and you’ve got a stylistic versatility that defied repetition or formula. And that’s just 2002, one year in an early-decade stretch so soaked with their presence that “43% of songs played on American radio in 2003 were Neptunes productions” became a widely-believed (if completely apocryphal) pseudostatistic. Even accounting for their gradual taper-off in hit-factory hyperproductivity that began around 2004, you could pull up a playlist of well over 800 songs Chad and/or Pharrell had a hand in and still find yourself wondering “yeah, but is that everything they did?"
Here’s another funny thing about the Neptunes: their story’s borne out best in their individual tracks, and this guide is largely album-driven, so we’re looking at them from a sort of obtuse angle. Full-lengths where they actually handled most or even more than half of the production duties are surprisingly rare, and ones that are front-to-back great taper off after the mid 2000s (apologies to Snoop Dogg’s Bush and Madonna’s Hard Candy). But that just reveals another facet to the Neptunes that speaks to a necessary restlessness beneath the surface of their dominance. Their ability to spread so much wealth while still remaining loyal to a core of collaborators they’d practically drop everything to work with — particularly their hometown coke-rap dons Clipse and pop’n’B-mutating singer Kelis — offset the mercenary-for-everyone ubiquity that would’ve ground down less-insightful producers. That ubiquity receded after half a decade, leading to an increasingly sporadic but still curious and readily-engaged elder statesmen status, even if much of it was overshadowed by Pharrell’s sole-billed efforts beginning with the double whammy of “Blurred Lines” and “Happy” in 2013. But just ask Odd Future — or anyone else who came of age when Pharrell and Chad seemed like the biggest thing since the LinnDrum: no sound ever really dies.
There’s raw deals, and then there’s what happened to Wanderland. What should’ve been a sophomore solidification of everything that made Kelis and the Neptunes click so forward-mindedly was just a little too weird for Virgin, so the singer ditched the label, which subsequently left what should’ve been a trans-continental smash stranded in Europe. But don’t say this album didn’t warn you: when its lead single (“Young, Fresh N’ New”) takes her just-turned-21 escapist liberation and goes “what if that cascade of exploding synths from the intro to Rush’s ‘Tom Sawyer’ was a whole-ass funk jam,” it becomes apparent that the Neptunes wanted to take their showcases for Kelis’s butter-to-napalm vocal range even further than Kaleidoscope did. It’s definitely a vibe-over-genre sort of eclecticism, where a descriptor like “futurist R&B” only scratches the surface of its pleasures — the synthetic carousel-slash-church organ scattering glitter everywhere in “Popular Thug” (featuring Clipse’s Pusha T in charming-sociopath mode), the prickly twitch-disco of “Digital World,” and No Doubt sidestepping ska-punk to give in to their arena-rock destiny for “Perfect Day.” If that all sounds like a sprawling mess, at least the star at the center of it all sings like it’s the self-proving star turn she deserved.
As the Neptunes transitioned from perpetual hitmakers to occasionally-brilliant legacy names, their greatest partners in hip-hop had the good fortune to still get their best beats — and use them to increasingly on-edge ends. If Lord Willin’ was surprisingly joyful, even magnanimous, in the Clipse’s sense of coke-trade resilience and the spoils that come with it, Hell Hath No Fury is the frank, cold-blooded counterpoint/counterpart. The whole vibe rides on a guarded, throne-defending “fuck around and find out” stance, heat-treated by some of the most elaborate-flowing and irreverent (and occasionally over-the-line) punchlines of hip-hop’s harshest decade. The beats have a ton to do with that, as though the Neptunes decided going for avant-adjacent broke was a better move than attempting to coast off ’02 fumes. Here they’ve unleashed their most diabolical rhythmic mutations (no more muted cardboard-box snares, this bangs) and decorating them with some of the most bizarre melodic flourishes ever heard on a hardcore hip-hop record. That encompasses post-Madvillainy accordions (“Momma I’m So Sorry”), endlessly echoing harp-from-hell swoons (“Ride Around Shining”), latex-bound trap-Reznor hedonism, (“Trill”) and, somehow, the actual honest-to-Brak Space Ghost teleportation sound (“Mr. Me Too”). That only heightens the contradictions of Pusha T and Malice’s triumphalist bravado, where it all sounds like the thrill-chasing excess that Bilal-laced, Geto Boys-interpolating closer “Nightmares” predicts will eventually turn into the third act to Scarface. Until then, victory is certain if you’re willing to fight for it: “Who gon’ stop us? Fuck the coppers, the mind of a kilo shopper/Seein’ my life through the windshields of choppers/I ain’t spent one rap dollar in three years, holla."
This wasn’t Pusha T and Malice’s first go with the Neptunes — 1999 debut Exclusive Audio Footage sat around in Elektra’s junk drawer after debut single “The Funeral” stiffed — but they could have hardly hoped for a better introduction to the world than this. The Thornton brothers pierced through the all-glamour opulence of pop-rap’s gilded age with something colder, meaner, and more lyrical than the era’s big crossover stars; even peak Jay-Z was less an apropos precedent for their calculating, bleak-punchline coke raps than Raekwon and Mobb Deep. But the catch — much to Lord Willin’s benefit — is that their hardcore-head lyrics are bolstered by some of the most joyously hook-riddled productions of the Neptunes’ peak era. “Grindin’” is an eternal beat, thanks to Chad and Pharrell deciding to forego their percussive minimalism for a suicide-door-slamming density that C4 couldn’t penetrate. But it’s hardly alone: the sax-riffing I learned it by watching you coke-heir origin story “Young Boy,” the kingpin royal-court triumphalism of “Cot Damn,” and top-tier Obligatory Club Track “When the Last Time” (replete with a synth hook that sounds like an impossibly catchy Nokia ringtone) would be any other debut album’s clear high points.
Twenty years on from his clean break with NSYNC, Justin Timberlake’s “time to grow up” solo debut feels like a dispatch from another world, one where he hadn’t thrown Janet Jackson under the bus post-Super Bowl or proven to be less sympathetic than “Cry Me A River” subject Britney Spears. Those personal shortcomings are probably as good a reason you could have to dismiss Justified, because it’s a lot harder to casually discard on a purely musical basis. The Neptunes Empire took the potential of Justin’s MJ-adjacent pop’n’B aspirations as far as anyone could have possibly taken it — at least until Timbaland, who sounds like he’s merely warming up here (“(Oh No) What You Got”; Bubba Sparxxx feature “Right for Me”), ushered him through his “actually I’m Prince now” phase four years later. And if the Neptunes’ weirdness here is a little more pared back than what they provided for Kelis or Britney or their own N*E*R*Dy selves, Justin’s able to match its still-high energy level right on the mark — and sound thoroughly geeked with enthusiasm doing it. It could all be chops and technique in the service of a persona that hasn’t held up, but we’d need at least a few more Man of the Woods-caliber faceplants to cancel out how well jams like “Like I Love You,” “Rock Your Body,” and “Señorita” carry out its libidinous affability.
Before poptimism took over, Serious Music Aficionados liked to question the legitimacy of the idea that knob-twiddling, synth-playing studio producers could ever be Real Bands. It’s a question that the Neptunes addressed with a bit of fence-straddling over the course of releasing their first album as N*E*R*D, which first dropped in Europe during the summer of ’01 before they decided to revamp the whole project with a live-band rerecording for its American version a year later. No slight to Spymob, but the serrated-edge weirdness of the original “electronic version” fits the material a bit better than the “rock” one, even if it put some technological constraints on the album’s ambitious eclecticism. Could be because Pharrell’s voice just harmonizes better with those tinny Triton riffs, could be because it’s funnier (and cooler) to call yourself a “Rock Star” over stripped-down beep-boop music actual rock stars would (foolishly) consider inauthentic, could be because even when things threaten to get maudlin (“Run to the Sun”; “Bobby James”) the “artificial” vibe gives enough distance from skepticism to make the emotion feel as legit as Pharrell’s almost naively delivered sincerity deserves. But it’s probably because the savory-sour funk of “Lapdance” and the dilated-pupil psychedelia of “Am I High” and the fucking-around-as-action-blockbuster oomph of “Truth or Dare” would still get embedded in your brain even if you played them on a Fisher-Price toy.
The Neptunes empire seemed to wane in the 2010s in favor of the Pharrell Williams Show, the producer-turned-singer-turned-mogul embedding himself in the musical establishment so thoroughly it’s almost possible to forget he built his legacy on sounding like an iconoclast. But given a chance to express his weirder side again with a reconstituted N*E*R*D — albeit with less input than previous from braintrust members Chad Hugo and Shay Haley — his creative-eccentric side broke through the respectable-vet facade to prove that he could still summon that air of unpredictable eclecticism without contorting himself too much. There are just enough guest-spot slots given to A-plus-listers to give this the sheen of cool-celeb Importance: Rihanna puts on a bubbly quasi-Houstonian drawl on the Nintendo-punk opening salvo “Lemon,” Future lurches maniacally through dissonant AutoTune on Devo-via-Mannie Fresh explosion “1000,” we get a rare and welcome dispatch from the psychedelically abstract world of Andre 3000 in the window-rattling, hyper-shifting mini-suite"Rollinem 7’s,” and Kendrick pulls double duty as cop-violence deconstructionist over mordant lounge-bossa on “Don’t Don’t Do It” before bursting through the skulking tension of “Kites” to demand a revolution that celebrates humanity. But the famous-friends atmosphere is less interesting than the absolutely untethered too-many-ideas energy Pharrell brings as producer and songwriter, where nothing’s ever really settled and the mood and form of his songs snaps into new shapes with the unpredictability of an ambush.
If the only real legacy of the second N*E*R*D album was the moment in “She Wants to Move” where Pharrell warbles “her ass is a spaceship I want to ride,” Fly or Die would still be remembered fondly, albeit with a sort of memetic semi-ironic kind of fondness. It’s a damn sight more interesting a record than that, though, teeming with a guitar-heavy yet post-genre panache that proved the likes of Gnarls Barkley would someday be possible. They’re enthused with the possibilities of rock without getting all self-consciously rawk about it — you can hear as much singer-songwriter-tradition Ben Folds (“Jump”) and Steely Dan (“Breakout”) in the album’s post-alt DNA as you can in guitar heroes like Lenny Kravitz (“Maybe”) and Red Hot Chili Peppers (“Backseat Love”). Considering how often these songs re-center a primordial notion of rock less as its own self-contained world than as a subgenre of R&B, you can forgive Pharrell if he still sounds a little short on vocal chops at this point in his career. But even then, the oddly delicate, even vulnerable timbre to his voice makes songs like the teen-angst title cut and the your move, Green Day anti-war power-pop flip-off “Drill Sergeant” strong arguments for the musical effectiveness of naive pop idealism in a world of cynics.
Record label red tape means officially-released “Neptunes’ greatest beats” compilations are logistically impossible, so unless you count a listicle filled with YouTube embeds or an enterprising fan’s self-made streaming playlist, this is as close as you’ll get to an actual album (OK, mixtape) that gives you a bigger-than-a-sliver picture of their pop dominance. And while most of their early superhits are confined to the masterfully cut-and-scratched N.O.R.E./Hova/Busta/Mystikal/Luda snippet barrage in the intro track, any mixtape that goes from the original all-electronic ’01 version of N*E*R*D’s borderline-glam “Rock Star” to Clipse’s moody Lox-featuring Lord Willin’ closer “I’m Not You” to Nelly’s deathless libido-catalyst club jam “Hot in Herre” will make a good case for those initial singles being just a warmup. There’s plenty more from Clipse (“When the Last Time”; “Hear Me Out”; a remix of “Grindin’” featuring N.O.R.E. and Baby) and Kelis (teaming with the Thorntons on “Popular Thug” and “Daddy”) to maintain their muso-familial connections, but the hits keep on coming, too — the “Co-Ed” remix of Britney Spears’ “Boys,” Jadakiss’s “Knock Urself Out,” and Queen Bey herself closing with “Work It Out” position the Neptunes as the ultimate crossover production unit of their era.
In retrospect, this might’ve made for a great curtain call for the Neptunes’ imperial phase. Clones is a wall-to-wall house party featuring nearly every major hip-hop and R&B star they’d notched a Top Ten hit with, delivered right at the brink of an overexposure that the following year’s scaled-back presence helpfully mitigated. Maybe that’s why so much of this album feels like it’s on the brink of hubris-fueled disaster, only to be rescued by its almost completely irony-free dedication to a good time. Are Busta Rhymes’ ass-driven hyperfixations (“Light Your Ass on Fire”), Ludacris’s invincible, bellowing shit-talk against the remotest possibility of falling off (“It Wasn’t Us”), and Nelly swearing up and down that he can be a paradoxically faithful player (“If”) the most W’s-first-term clubland agenda thinkable? Yeah, but they’re also respectively more maniacally futurist, dissonantly weirder, and populuxe sleeker than that grotesque era really deserved. And even if their “hey, we heard Rock Is Back” deep cuts (featuring In Search Of….-bolstering power-poppers Spymob and adenoidal demi-Weezeroids High Speed Scene) seem like a bewildering detour, at least they were ahead of the curve (and better at it) when it came to the Travis Barker-fueled punk-hop cultural tide that’d eventually dump Machine Gun Kelly on our heads. Oh, and not to bury the lede, but this is the one with “Frontin’” on it — the track where Pharrell finally just steps out and reveals he wants to be Prince. That he wound up just being Pharrell instead is still a good consolation prize.