The Neptunes—Virginia Beach–based producers Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo—are as inescapable as reruns of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. They have earned cultural omnipresence not through repetition or novelty, though, but through truly radical pop-music-making for everyone from Britney Spears to Jay-Z.
The title of their debut—The Neptunes Presents . . . Clones—smartly plays on their viruslike takeover of pop culture (it also references an album from a similarly chameleonlike music genius: Parliament’s classic The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein). And with a kind of Night of 1,000 Hip-Hop Stars lineup (Busta Rhymes, Ludacris, Snoop Dogg), Clones should be the pair’s peak, a showcase for the most adventurous productions from a duo raised on rap and rave.
But despite its No. 1 track on Billboard’s singles chart this week, Clones represents the Neptunes’ nadir. On “Frontin’,” the album’s first single, Williams’s voice is a falsetto without a body, a singing-in-the-shower version of Curtis Mayfield (it’s a voice that Justin Timberlake affected for his Neptunes-produced solo debut, a voice that left me feeling like Timberlake was Williams’s ventriloquist’s dummy). And the springy, looped guitar line accompanying Williams is too familiar: The Neptunes used a similar sound for Snoop Dogg’s recent hit “Beautiful.”
The rest of Clones testifies to how familiar (and hollow) the Neptunes’ studio tricks have become: The staticky electro of Busta Rhymes’s “Light Your Ass on Fire” could be any number of tracks the pair made for Kelis or Busta Rhymes, while the industrial-sounding slams and whirs of Rosco P. Coldchain’s “Hot” mimic the beats the Neptunes created for the Clipse’s “Grindin.”
Busy producers like the Neptunes, of course, often repeat themselves, and monomania can be thrilling (Phil Spector made a kick drumbeat work with one group after another). But Clones seems less like a single-minded pursuit of a vision than like a trudge over well-covered ground. It’s an especially disappointing album given that the Neptunes are responsible for one of the most outré major-label projects ever, N*E*R*D. But whereas N*E*R*D never really took off on the pop charts—the Neptunes-by-numbers of Clones already has.