Let me first get out of the way how incredible I think the Neptunes are. Sugar before shank, my mom always says. Like hip-hop auteur, Timbaland, once the Neptunes have laid healing hands on a song, it’s indisputably their own. You can recognize a Neptunes track by the way that the song’s bones are lifted to the surface and pounded out like a giant’s footfalls. The beats are simple, tactile and instantly demand a head nod, an ass shake, and an almost demonic surrender. Frequently, the overriding beat erases the necessity of paying attention to the words or the person singing. Given their somewhat shoddy taste in collaboration, this is always a godsend. Clones is essentially a mixtape of like-minded grooves, a revolving lineup of side projects and pop-rap superstars submitting to the hump-thumping vision of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. The result is an uneven album with moments of thunderous fun and more than a few flatlined missteps.
When Clones does its duty, the results are like having lightning snare kicked into your veins. Rosco P. Coldchain’s “Hot” is a minimal masterpiece, with sludge-warped turntabling that sounds like a pair of rubbing corduroys hooked up to an amp. Not to mention the track’s smooth threat of a chorus: “I’m Da Vinci, don’t make me draw your pain”. Many of the songs are populated with drive-by cartoon noises, bionic sounds, or a firing range of intergalactic weaponry. On “It Wasn’t Us”, with Ludacris on the mic, bike bells, coffee can percussion, firing rockets, zooming cars, and random screams blip by the background and provide necessary side roads to the beat. Jamaican dancehall legend Super Cat chimes in over a grinding pogo vault of a backdrop on “The Don of Dons”, replete with Jadakiss growling and what sounds like a baby rattle bringing up the rear. Unsurprisingly, Kelis and Nas (one of the few people on this record who can lyrically torch his way through a track) contribute far and away the best effort with “Popular Thug”, a slinky little song with snippets of hooka horn built around a beat that sounds like a scratched CD skipping. Even Nelly, who we last heard from when he decided to write a song about his shoes, brings a wild, auctioneering flow to “If”, a song that slowly plays tinkling jazz keyboard against a bullet-paced drumbeat.
Sadly, it’s impossible not to notice that a good half or more of this album is for shit. Jay-Z makes a cameo on “Frontin’” that’s more like a pin drop, slinging his usual half-assed flow (rhymin’ are with are) and lines that would sound better if he just read change-of-address forms. Vanessa Marquez’s “Good Girl” sounds like an old Jody Watley b-side, full of cheap synth slabs, painfully thin vocals, and a beat that’s not much more than a tepid golf clap. The High Speed Scene contributes a lip-glossed bubble-punk throwaway, with the slightly redeeming grace of a funny chorus (“Fuck, Fuck, Spend Money”). On songs outside of hip-hop, there’s nothing particularly compelling about the way they produce. In fact, on a song that’s supposed to have some kind of raw, punk edge, “Fuck n’ Spend” sounds like a shiny, white bone sucked clean of its meat. Other rock numbers fare similarly. I can admire the genre free-for-all of a band like Spymob, but they ultimately leave a muddied and irritating aftertaste, like taking Ben Folds Five and having Liam Gallagher sing for them. At one point, I swear to you that I heard a Boston riff, which is about as welcome as hearing a dead body hit your hit your bedroom window. There are some really terrible songs on this album that no amount of angular clack zagging will save. Even a successful formula can leave listeners cold when heartlessly abused or, in the case of Clones, shamelessly coasted upon. Still, I’m tempted to believe that even their fuck-ups are more interesting than most pop records, especially those by some of the artists they include here.
As production pioneers delivering beat commandments to the masses, you’d think they’d also want to bring them some of hip-hop and pop music’s most interesting and talented artists, all of whom are achingly absent here. Audre Lord once said that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” I’m pretty sure that also applies to actually buying the master’s house. Any jackass can makes lots of money, attract lots of gold diggers, and then rap about it. By now, the Neptunes have made enough money to keep their ho’s hos in designer skin. It couldn’t hurt to dig up a few people gifted in word play to bounce around inside their bar-rattling beat cages. Despite my reservations and my slips into yawn, I would still recommend that everyone get this record, program out the skiffle and drive around experiencing the pimped-out pomp and quake of pop music’s most deft hit architects.