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 youre 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 years N.E.R.D. album and youll 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 Kraftwerks proto-techno. Pharrell and Neptunes partner Chad Hugo may pass the Courvoisier with P. Diddy and Jay-Z, but in the studio theyre practically hip-hops 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 todays hip-hop, R&B and pop production indistinguishable. For two consecutive summers, theyve delivered more hits than a hammer: Nellys Hot in Herre, N.O.R.E.s Nothin, Justin Timberlakes Rock Your Body, etc.
So why isnt their new Clones album better than it is? True, Frontin and Light Your Ass come off Clones, as does Ol Dirty Bastards deliriously bugged Pop Shit, all lit up in screaming sirens and jangling guitar hooks. But Vanessa Marquezs painfully thin Good Girl isnt even demo good, and N.O.R.E.s Put Em Up seems destined for strip clubs only. The irony of the albums title is that the Neptunes often recycle their own beats Frontin, Rock Your Body and Snoop Doggs Beautiful are variations on the same theme, for example. This is forgivable when the Tunes clone heat, such as Rosco P. Coldchains chomping Hot reminiscent of the sparse drum track on the Clipses Grindin. Yet its frustrating when Nellys 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 Sparxxxs new Deliverance, and his craftsmanship is always a revelation. On My Tone, youre 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 Timbalands 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.
Timbalands dependable like that, though; Deliverances real surprise is Bubba Sparxxx himself. Critics were quick to accuse Bubba of hobo-ing onto Eminems 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 thats 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 regions humanity, embodied in Sparxxxs unlikely prodigal-son figure. Boosted by Bubbas lyrical growth and Timbalands 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, its 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)
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