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The Neptunes Don't Front

Listening to Pharrell Williams’ “Frontin’” makes me want to be 16 again, hugging the gymnasium wall at a school dance. Some music never sounds so good as when you’re young, and my affection for “Frontin’” stems from how it evokes memories of my teenage KROQ years. No one would mistake “Frontin’” for a Cure song (Prince? Sure), but listen to last year’s N.E.R.D. album and you’ll hear how the Neptunes production team draw as much from throwback modern rock as from contemporary hip-hop. Like the best that new wave had to offer — moussed coifs aside — the Neptunes deliver pop so artificially perfect in its synthesized shine and ivory-clean sound that it attains its own kind of purity.

Need more proof of their Euro-pop passions? On “Light Your Ass on Fire,” featuring Busta Rhymes, the opening crescendo references “Trans Europe Express,” while the pulsing drum flanges complete a funkified homage to Kraftwerk’s proto-techno. Pharrell and Neptunes partner Chad Hugo may pass the Courvoisier with P. Diddy and Jay-Z, but in the studio they’re practically hip-hop’s new-wave apostles — Pet Shop Boys for a Roc-A-Wear generation. That kind of sonic playfulness has helped them all but make the rest of today’s hip-hop, R&B and pop production indistinguishable. For two consecutive summers, they’ve delivered more hits than a hammer: Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” N.O.R.E.’s “Nothin’,” Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body,” etc.

So why isn’t their new Clones album better than it is? True, “Frontin’” and “Light Your Ass” come off Clones, as does Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s deliriously bugged “Pop Shit,” all lit up in screaming sirens and jangling guitar hooks. But Vanessa Marquez’s painfully thin “Good Girl” isn’t even demo good, and N.O.R.E.’s “Put ’Em Up” seems destined for strip clubs only. The irony of the album’s title is that the Neptunes often recycle their own beats — “Frontin’,” “Rock Your Body” and Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful” are variations on the same theme, for example. This is forgivable when the ’Tunes clone heat, such as Rosco P. Coldchain’s chomping “Hot” — reminiscent of the sparse drum track on the Clipse’s “Grindin’.” Yet it’s frustrating when Nelly’s “If” sounds like a halfhearted “Hot in Herre II,” or when the High Speed Scene pulls an unconvincing (and rather aberrant) Blink-182 rip with “Fuckin’ Spend.”

 

The balance of Clones still gets a passing grade, but whatever the album boasts in competence it still lacks in adventure. In this regard, the Neptunes have usually fallen a tall step behind fellow Virginia Beach beatmaker Timbaland. Tim produces all but a few songs on Bubba Sparxxx’s new Deliverance, and his craftsmanship is always a revelation. On “My Tone,” you’re initially drawn to the raucous guitar tears, but listen underneath and Tim choreographs a twirling dance of tabla taps, handclaps and rim shots. Likewise, on the infectiously folksy “Comin’ Round,” zinging fiddles lie atop a bed of shuffling drum brushes, croaking synthesizers and a bongo break. The beauty in Timbaland’s approach is that it rarely calls attention to itself.

The Neptunes polish their beats like sparkling buttons; Timbaland prefers to hide the seams, but you still appreciate how comfortable the fit is.

Timbaland’s dependable like that, though; Deliverance’s real surprise is Bubba Sparxxx himself. Critics were quick to accuse Bubba of hobo-ing onto Eminem’s train the first time around, but he comes into his own with a sophomore effort that should silence all the “hick-hop” snickering. So much of Deliverance, including the title track and “Jimmy Mathis,” celebrates family as a source of support and inspiration, but the real gem is “Nowhere,” as Bubba pens an ode that’s as much an anthem for all his Southern brethren as it is dedicated to his immediate blood kin.

Deliverance aspires to redeem the South, not through crunked-out anthems that hoist the Southern Cross, but by celebrating the region’s humanity, embodied in Sparxxx’s unlikely prodigal-son figure. Boosted by Bubba’s lyrical growth and Timbaland’s production play on backwater country and blues tunes, Deliverance embraces the fruits of miscegenation that the Old South so feared. What with Andre 3000 cutting love ballads and Chingy shilling for Holiday Inn, it’s not clear what the so-called New South is rising to become, but Bubba Sparxxx plants a seed that promises to grow proud and tall in the fertile bluegrass soil.

THE NEPTUNES | The Neptunes Present . . . Clones | (Star Trak)

BUBBA SPARXXX | Deliverance | (Interscope)