Look, we’re not saying the Pharrell train’s over, but he made his best music when he was a little less ‘Happy’.
It’s no exaggeration to call the Neptunes the most successful pop producers of the early ’00s – it’s pretty much a fact, with the duo gridlocking the Billboard charts in 2002 and 2003 with a run of hits that even Timbaland couldn’t match. Add to that Pharrell’s status as one of hip-hop’s most in-demand hook men (and, you know, owner of one of the world’s most in-demand faces), and the man was inescapable, but to resent it was just silly. Nobody was delivering hits like this guy.
We thought it was about time to look back and rank his 50 greatest moments as a producer, singer, rapper and songwriter, ranging from 1993 to present day.
50. Daft Punk feat. Pharrell & Nile Rodgers
(Random Access Memories, Columbia, 2013)
Low-key rarity. One for the diggers.
49. Usher feat. Pharrell
It may not have made the cut for Usher’s Confessions, but this is how grown man Pharrell always should have sounded.
48. N*Sync feat. Nelly
(Celebrity, Zomba, 2002)
Not the track that transformed Timberlake from boy band brillo pad to sex symbol – more on that later – but certainly the precursor, and N*Sync’s finest moment by several country miles.
‘Things Are Getting Better’
(In Search Of…, Virgin/EMI, 2001)
One of the songs that benefited from the replacement of electronic drums with live ones on the re-release of In Search Of…, ‘Things Are Getting Better’ is the “yang” to ‘Lapdance’s sexually nihilistic “yin.” It’s a duality that plays out over the whole album, and this one’s effervescent funk is from when a time when Pharrell could do happy without doing ‘Happy’.
46. Guru feat. Kelis
(Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Vol. 3: Streetsoul, Virgin, 2000)
By the time Guru reached volume three of his patchy Jazzmatazz series most listeners had turned off, which is kind of a shame. ‘Supa Love’ in particular is a rarely-heard treasure, sounding like it could have been chopped from Kelis’s towering Kaleidoscope.
‘Right Here’ (Human Nature Mix)
(It’s About Time, RCA, 1993)
As legend has it, New Jack Swing progenitor Teddy Riley discovered The Neptunes at a high school talent show and promptly scooped them up. One of Pharrell’s first credits was as a producer on SWV’s ‘Right Here’: rapping on the “UK Remix” of the original, and dropping the call-and-response intro on the MJ-sampling “Human Nature Mix” — the version that appeared on the Free Willy soundtrack and topped the charts.
(God’s Favorite, Def Jam/IDJMG/Universal Records, 2002)
The lead single from N.O.R.E.’s third album God’s Favorite, ‘Nothin” is a class cut marred only by its witless video, and yet another Neptunes hit from the first few years of the millennium, when at one point Pharrell had a hand in over 40% of the songs played on U.S. radio. Amazingly, a decade later and it’s the same story – his three most recent singles have all achieved global success, with each selling over a million copies in the UK.
43. Child Rebel Soldiers
(Can’t Tell Me Nothing, Star Trak/G.O.O.D. Music, 2007)
Pharrell, Kanye and a pre-drop off Lupe Fiasco do karaoke over Thom Yorke’s ‘The Eraser’, and lift the original up a good couple of leagues in the process. A lovely curio in and of itself, but doubly interesting as a sort of warning flare for Yeezy’s similarly chilly 808 & Heartbreaks.
(Hard or Smooth, MCA, 1992)
Rewind to 1992 and Pharrell is a sprightly 19 years old (just before he commissioned that painting for his attic) and enjoying his first taste of success with a writing credit on this glute-wobbling New Jack Swing hit by Wreckx-N-Effect, for which he penned Teddy Riley’s verse (another case of the hip-hop ghostwriter). It would’ve been his first number one, too, but Whitney Houston had already pitched camp at the top of the Billboard chart with ‘I Will Always Love You’.
41. Clipse feat. Slim Thug
‘Wamp Wamp (What It Do)’
(Hell Hath No Fury, Jive, 2006)
Proving yet again that they can do a hell of a lot with almost nothing, The Neptunes manage inexplicably to make steel drum hits and Pharrell’s rickety bucket drumming sound genuinely menacing. Of course, some of that’s down to Pusha T and Malice’s throaty coke raps, but there’s no denying the stark, icy minimalism of that beat.
40. Jay Z
(American Gangster, Def Jam, 2007)
Snipped from the mediocre American Gangster full-length, ‘Blue Magic’ is the album’s single moment of brilliance, thanks in no small part to the inclusion of Pharrell Williams. It’s no secret that The Neptunes plus Jay is a winning formula, and ‘Blue Magic’ is an under-appreciated jewel in their collaborative crown.
39. Kendrick Lamar
(Good Kid m.a.a.d. City, Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope, 2012)
The downbeat centrepiece of Kendrick’s epic bildungsroman, ‘Good Kid’ stands apart from most of the tracks on our list by virtue of its introspection, overt intellectualism and resolute un-poppiness, as our protagonist weighs up his brush with gang-banging and his fate as a young black man in Compton. Pharrell delivers the gentle falsetto hook (“Mass hallucination baby”) and furnishes Kendrick’s growing anger with prowling, jazzy bass and sumptuous orchestral flourishes.
38. Slim Thug
‘Like A Boss’
(Already Platinum, Star Trak, 2005)
The Neptunes released the Houston veteran’s first official album on their Star Trak imprint, producing half of it. ‘Like A Boss’ is a big brassy Southern rap anthem and Slim Thug’s mission statement; that walking bassline and those horns find the Neptunes at their most maximalist.
‘Lookin At Me’
(Harlem World, Bad Boy, 1998)
‘Lookin’ At Me’ is the only Neptunes production on Harlem World, and it’s a pity there weren’t more – this tense, sprung club music, equal parts indebted to G-Funk and the GoldenEye soundtrack, suits Puffy’s pretty boy down to the ground.
36. Pharrell feat. Gwen Stefani
‘Can I Have It Like That’
(In My Mind, Star Trak / Interscope, 2005)
OK, it’s not half as bananas (B-A-N-A-N-A-anas) as Pharrell and Gwen’s ‘Hollaback Girl’, but ‘Can I Have It Like That’ remains an unsung hero of the Pharrell single collection, combining the blustery acoustic breakdowns of yer ‘Senorita’s with a beat that’s effectively ‘Mr. Me Too’ in chrysalis.
‘U Don’t Have To Call’
(8701, Arista, 2001)
Muffled drums and star guitar – it’s no secret that the Neps were knocking beats like this out in their sleep in 2001, and without Usher’s presence there’s three or four songs on In Search Of… that you could easily confuse this with. Of course, none of that matters when Usher is present, and ‘U Don’t Have To Call’ is the peak moment of one of the Neps’ most rewarding relationships. Great video, too: Usher’s baggy boxers, Diddy on video phone and the sickest house this side of R. Kelly.
34. Busta Rhymes feat. Diddy & Pharrell
‘Pass the Courvoisier Part II’
(Genesis, Flipmode / J, 2002)
It’s well established that nobody does music videos quite like Busta, but between the alleyway fight, Mr. T working the bar, Spliff Star’s giant glass of merlot (followed by a cross-eyed turn in said alley) and Pharrell dry-humping under the pool table, ‘Pass The Courvoisier’ might be his funniest moment on screen.
33. Frank Ocean
(channel ORANGE, Def Jam, 2012)
We already know Pharrell can make magic out of little more than a scruffy drum beat and a few jagged guitar chords, but ‘Sweet Life’ is evidence that he’s right at home with luxurious maximalism too. A lush, brass-plated backdrop to Frank’s wide-eyed appraisal of domesticated paradise, the clever addition of a noodling Rhodes piano underlines the fripperies of the super rich kids’ daily grind of sunshine, swimming pools and “mango, peaches and lime”.
(In Search Of…, Virgin / EMI 2001)
There’s a school of thought that In Search Of… is just one huge cocaine album, and although it’s not quite Lord Willin, there’s a pendulum swinging between numb-faced highs (‘Truth or Dare’, ‘Rockstar’, ‘Lapdance’) and sore-jawed lows (‘Bobby James’) throughout it. ‘Provider”s the just-about-sober moment in the middle, where the hustle seems as tragic as it is romantic. File next to Jay Z’s ‘Never Change’ and, we dunno, Blow or something.
(Beyoncé, Columbia, 2013)
The most fun Beyoncé has on her masterful fifth album, Pharrell’s fingerprints are all over the neon disco groove of the first half, and while Timbaland is more prominent in the breakdown, both producers add a touch of background vocals. This one adds a touch of his Daft Punk songs to a streamlined take on his early work with Kelis.
30. Tyler, The Creator feat. Pharrell
(Wolf, Odd Future/Sony, 2013)
Pharrell made Tyler’s year (life?) by featuring up on Wolf standout ‘IFHY’, a carnival ride through Tyler’s subconscious that owes much to the left-field rap of N.E.R.D’s oeuvre. Pharrell shows up about halfway through, his gentle cooing a counterpoint to Tyler’s psychotic obsessions. It’s a bit part, but there’s no Tyler or Odd Future without Pharrell and friends.
29. Britney Spears
(Britney, Jive, 2001)
Yes, ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’ was the bolder Williams/Spears collision, but the focus-grouped cockteasing still rings a little hollow. By contrast, ‘Boys’ – originally earmarked for Janet Jackson – was exactly the sort of music Britney and The Neptunes should be making together: savvy FM pop, with playground singsong traction and judiciously applied innuendo.
28. Justin Timberlake
(Justified, Jive, 2002)
As demonstrated on the sugary sing-along ‘Happy’, Pharrell has a knack for skirting dangerously close to cornballery without ever quite losing his edge, and never more so on the potentially pukesome ‘Senorita’. Need you be reminded, in the breakdown JT calls on the guys, and then girls, to sing along with his cheesy lines and pair off in heteronormative couples – lame, but somehow it just works. As usual, the pop sheen is offset by drums that kick like a mule and a juicy dose of cowbell, plus perhaps the most quotable ad libs in Pharrell and JT’s collaborative history.
‘I Still Love You’
(Star, Motown, 2003)
A couple of elements tell us that ‘I Still Love You’ was released in 2003: that post-‘Grindin” timpani hammering away in the background, plus the treacly fusion touches that Pharrell went for hard around this time. Ultimately, though, ‘I Still Love You’ could easily have come out in 1999, so cheery are the synth swells and fingerpicked guitars.
‘What’s Yo’ Name’
(I’m Serious, Arista, 2001)
Pharrell and Chad Hugo’s addiction to cheapo presets meant that they had to field plenty of vitriol back in the day, and looking back it’s hard not to appreciate their balls dropping such distinctly uncool beats for the era’s rap royalty. Saying that, T.I.’s influential drawl wraps around The Neptunes’ bargain-basement organ like a comfort blanket, and he somehow emerges with his pimp hand intact.
25. Snoop Dogg feat. Pharrell
(Paid tha Cost to Be da Boss, Doggystyle/Priority/Capitol, 2002)
The zenith of sassy early noughties hip-hop, from Pharrell’s signature falsetto coo and itchy percussion right down to the impossibly glamorous (and possibly exploitative) video, set in Rio de Janeiro and featuring the usual backdrop of anonymous mixed race babes in bikinis, a visual trope so hackneyed it practically deserves heritage status. The production won a Grammy in 2004, a case of an award ceremony getting it right for once. Listen out for Charlie Wilson, too.
(Kaleidoscope, Virgin, 2009)
Honestly if there’s one perfect representation of The Neptunes’ knotty, psychedelic vision it’s Kelis’s debut Kaleidoscope. It’s tough even to pick a particular standout – the whole album is damned essential – but ‘Game Show’s endearingly unsophisticated blend of plinky-plonk synths and silky vocals is just too good to ignore.
‘She Wants To Move’
(Fly or Die, Virgin, 2004)
Let’s face it: N.E.R.D’s post-In Search Of… discography is hit or miss, but not without its charms. ‘She Wants To Move’ is a supercollider of rollicking percussion, hypnotic bass, dueling piano and guitar, Pharrell’s ad-libs (“she’s sexy!”), and the odd ray-gun — it’s tough not to move to this one. Plus, nostalgia points for its use in Six Feet Under.
22. P. Diddy feat. Pharrell
(The Saga Continues…, Bad Boy, 2001)
Yeah, yeah – Diddy’s never been exactly a reliable figure, but put him alongside Pharrell and you’ve got a hit. Forget the big man’s unnecessary, awkward raps, this one’s all about Pharrell’s golden hook and a two-note electric piano line that’s so simple you’ll be kicking yourself. It’s Sesame Street with beats.
21. Philly’s Most Wanted
‘Cross The Border’
(Get Down or Lay Down, Atlantic, 2000)
‘Cross The Border’ is a great example of how turn-of-the-millennium Neptunes were interested less in specific instruments than a particular sound – a clipped, almost pointillist staccato hit. It’s all over this track, where unlikely bedfellows – woodblocks, ersatz MIDI horns, pizzicato guitars – are all turned to the same short, sharp ends.
20. Angie Stone
‘Everyday’ (Neptunes Remix feat. Pusha T)
(Black Diamond, Arista, 1999)
Stone’s languid Black Diamond track gets well and truly Superthugged, with a great Pusha T feature thrown on for good measure. Williams and Hugo were probably knocking these sort of assembly-jobs together in their sleep by this point, but ‘Everyday’ is particularly top-notch.
One of The Neptunes’ most syrup-laced drops, ‘Skrung Owt’ was apparently composed while Pharrell watched Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece The Shining. It certainly finds the producer in an uncharacteristically dark place, trading off the usually fragmented sounds in favor of bellowing Wendy Carlos-esque synths and booming kicks. We want more.
18. Pharrell feat. Jay Z
(Clones, Arista, 2003)
‘Frontin” is, fittingly, a massive bluff: when it came out, Williams claimed that his debut solo single was a one-off experiment, rather than the career launchpad hindsight has shown it to be. Still, even if ‘Frontin” is a water-testing exercise, it’s a bold first foray – the beat (a vulcanised Chic tribute), the hook (Pharrell’s reedy falsetto does the business) and the production (just on the right side of chintzy) press the right buttons in the right order.
‘Hot In Herre’
(Nellyville, Universal/Fo’Reel, 2002)
The quintessential cross-genre club banger, infecting nightspots from Miami to Malmö and every grotty backwater nightspot that provided shelter for underage drinkers in the early noughties. And quite right too, with the Neptunes’ moody chords and awkward cowbell rhythm powering a skeletal and weirdly downbeat groove; a counterpoint to Nelly’s Southern-fried rhymes and hedonistic denuding.
16. Britney Spears
‘I’m A Slave 4 U’ (Light Your Ass On Fire Remix)
(Britney, Jive, 2001)
Britney approaching the crest of her powers here, having thrown out her Walmart Lolita shtick in favour of sex, sweat and a fucking massive snake. Something about third album Britney feels so right – she’s plastic yet edgy, selling sex but exploiting your gaze at the same time with brazen raunch and give-a-fuck attitude as she sheds her Disney skin (that old chestnut) and yearns to “leave behind my name and my age”. The Neptunes make all this possible with their breathy, sultry production (originally intended for Janet Jackson), while the ‘Light Your Ass On Fire Remix’ inserts a drum break with Pharrell’s vocal.
(Back for the First Time, Def Jam, 2000)
Throw dem bows! Forget his cosmopolitan style: Pharrell is from Virginia Beach and the Neptunes now how to do Dirty South. Trunk-rattle and the interplay between sawtooth synths and flute samples underlay one of Luda’s breakthrough singles — people forget, but he had quite a run in the early aughts.
14. Rosco P. Coldchain feat. Pusha T & Boo-Bonic
(Clones, Star Trak, 2003)
Thought ‘Grindin’ was as minimal as the Neps’ productions got? ‘Hot’ is literally – literally – a couple of percussion channels and a reversed sample, plus some scratches on the hook. It peaks on Pusha’s guest verse, obviously, but this one’s all about the beat – a lesson to any producer that ever overegged the pudding.
13. Clipse feat. Pharrell
‘Mr. Me Too’
(Hell Hath No Fury, Re-Up/Star Trak, 2006)
To be honest it’s hard to pick a single track from Clipse’s jaw-dropping second album Hell Hath No Fury, but ‘Mr. Me Too’ is hard to argue with. Dispensing with the staccato plucks of their earlier output, it’s compelling evidence that Pharrell sounds just as comfortable working in the darkness, and more proof that rap beats don’t need no stinkin’ melody.
12. Beenie Man feat. Mya
‘Girls Dem Sugar’
(Art and Life, Virgin, 2000)
Incense stick dancehall. ‘Girls Dem Sugar’ comes dangerously close to primness, but those analgesic synths and the perfectly judged Mya feature show that the Neptunes know when a soft touch is required.
(N.O.R.E., Tommy Boy, 1998)
One of the Neptunes’ first big hits, ‘Superthug’ established their template early: shifty percussion, jagged sawtooth leads, and — when possible — a touch of Kelis. The Neptunes would continue to produce for Noreaga/N.O.R.E., often with Pharrell pulling feature duty, but the less said about the rapper the better, though: this 2005 interview didn’t do him any favors.
10. Gwen Stefani
(Love. Angel. Music. Baby., Interscope, 2004)
Even for Pharrell in his mid-noughties bloom, this song seemed beamed in from another planet, pairing cupcake-sweet ooohs with brattish cheerleading yelps and the inspired idiocy of that “bananas” hook. A genius salvo from Stefani, newly unleashed from No Doubt and morphing into that rare breed of pop star that appeals to the punk fans, the pop dorks and now the hip hop kids (although in retrospect the whole Harajuku concept was Miley-esque cultural appropriation avant le lettre). According to her, the track was a response to being labelled a “cheerleader” by Courtney Love: “So I was like, okay, fuck you. You want me to be a cheerleader? Well, I will be one then. And I’ll rule the whole world, you just watch me.”
(In Search Of…, Virgin/EMI, 2001)
These days it’s Mike Will and his ATL cohorts that near on exclusively handle the strip club, but back in 2001 ‘Lapdance’ was all you needed. Simple but alarmingly catchy the song put a spotlight on Pharrell’s signature falsetto, backing it with a beat so skeletal it might as well be pinned up in the Natural History Museum. Make sure you track down the original version however – the worrying nu-metal-sounding revised mix isn’t a patch.
08. Ol’ Dirty Bastard feat. Kelis
‘Got Your Money’
(Nigga Please, Elektra, 1999)
Fifteen years later and this one will still get the whole club clapping along when those handclaps hit. Appropriately, ODB gets one of the Neptunes’ loopier basslines (and some 808 lowend) to do his thing. It’s Kelis’ first appearance on a single, and sadly, ODB’s last. While some Neptunes hits blur together, this one stands alone.
07. Snoop Dogg
‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’
(R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta): The Masterpiece, Geffen, 2004)
‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’ might not be The Neptunes’ boldest statement – it’s really just a souped-up, Snooped-up ‘Grindin” – but it’s arguably their white dwarf – the point where their various interests (club knock, bugged-out minimalism, tinny lucent synths, unapologetic hook-worship) achieve maximum density. A Freshers Week anthem made up pretty much exclusively of pink noise and tongue clicks? P. Will Made It.
06. Baby feat. Clipse
‘What Happened To That Boy?’
(Birdman, Cash Money, 2002)
For all the perks of their relationships with Timberlake, Usher and Kelis, no one quite made sense together like the Neptunes and Clipse. Sure, ‘What Happened to that Boy”s by Baby, but it’s a Neps/Clipse joint in everything but the brrrr, and pips even ‘Got Your Money’ in the All-Time Best Neptunes Handclaps stakes.
05. Mystikal feat. Pharrell
‘Shake Ya Ass’
(Let’s Get Ready, Jive, 2000)
The first in a long line of Pharrell’s featured artist spots (albeit uncredited), Pharrell’s lithe bridge on ‘Shake Ya Ass’ plays perfectly off Mystikal’s unhinged grunts and free association. And despite The Neptunes being near the height of their game, it almost wasn’t a single: “I wouldn’t have wanted to do it, because I didn’t think it represented me as, you know, lyrically the way I would want to be represented,” Mystikal admitted. “Once they put it out there, they definitely proved me wrong.”
04. Jay-Z feat. Pharrell
‘I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)’
(The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, Def Jam, 2000)
Anchored by the now-familiar Pharrell-sung chorus of “I’m a hustler baby,” ‘I Just Wanna Love U’ was the track that introduced The Neptunes to the mainstream (meaning Britney Spears and pals), and what an introduction it was. Decadent and full of swagger, when Jay raps “get you bling like The Neptunes sound,” you know exactly what he’s on about.
03. Justin Timberlake feat. Clipse
‘Like I Love You’
(Justified, Jive, 2002)
The baby-faced Justin went from squeaky to freaky overnight with his first solo single, a stripped back banger pieced together from junkyard drums, acoustic disco licks, a snaking synth line and that cloud-scraping falsetto wail. ‘Like I Love You’ is both a sequel to N Sync’s farewell single ‘Girlfriend’ (another Neptunes credit) and a sign pointing to JT’s future as a “credible recording artist”, to use a Cowellism. And with Clipse on the middle eight and plenty of space for JT’s quotable ad libs, an unlikely hip-hop crossover star was born.
(Tasty, Star Trak/Arista, 2003)
Let’s get this clear – Kelis never sounded better than when she was saddled to Pharrell and Chad, and ‘Milkshake’ is undoubtedly the moment when their entire experiment just came into focus. From the angry, sawing synths to the unmistakable “ding,” ‘Milkshake’ is pitch-perfect from beginning to end. We can’t think of a much better example of Pharrell’s archetypal bucket drumming, either.
(Lord Willin’, Star Trak/Arista, 2002)
Street hustle, beat muscle. Now that Pharrell’s dealing in syrup’n’strings retro slickness, it’s a joy to return to The Clipse’s breakthrough single – ultra-minimalist boom-bap from the school of Schaeffer, and probably the only Noughties anthem to sound like a symphony of slammed Cadillac doors. To think – the Despicable Me 2 generation are only one fateful Google search away from coke rap’s purest masterpiece.