Between 1999 and 2004, there wasn’t a single hip-hop producer – fellow Virginia Beach man Timbaland aside – touching the Neptunes.
Even Timbaland, renowned for taking the deeply weird and twisting it into chart success, didn’t share the same hit rate as Chad Hugo and Pharrell did in the early ‘00s. Frankly, they shouldn’t even need an introduction, as anyone who spent this period with a radio will, consciously or not, have had the way they viewed pop music altered by the Neptunes. Following a somewhat rough late ‘90s (which isn’t to say there wasn’t gold – there’s nothing duller than golden age bores dismissing this period outright), chart hip-hop spent the first half of the last decade as unique and experimental as it ever has been, and these two are the key reasons why.
They made stars (Clipse, Kelis) and they reinvented stars (Britney, Justin Timberlake – they were even behind N*Sync’s best ever single). They also released a classic album: In Search Of…, under their N*E*R*D guise. But this feature deals with The Neptunes as potent chart producers, and aims to combine both their greatest (and mostly obvious) triumphs with lesser-known moments of genius. Naturally, when you’re restricted to ten choices, a lot of worthy music has been left out, but if you’re eager for more, then check the “See also” footnotes under certain entries.
1. Noreaga – ‘Superthug (What What)’
(from N.O.R.E, 1998)
There are early Neptunes tracks dating back to the mid-‘90s, for R&B groups like Total and SWV. They’re good, but on the generic side; it wasn’t until the late part of that decade that Chad and Pharrell would start to really develop the techniques that shaped how pop music would sound in the ‘00s.
‘Superthug’ is a great standalone production, but also a sign of things to come: that ultra-nasty bassline would be revisited throughout the group’s N.E.R.D. material, and those blunt bursts of kick drum would become a trademark of their productions for The Clipse and more. It’s also got a video set in the desert, which was something a lot of hip-hop artists were doing around this time. We’re not quite sure why.
See also: Busta Rhymes – ‘Pass the Courvoisier Pt. 2’, Noreaga: ‘Oh No’ (Remix)
2. Kelis – ‘In The Morning’
Kelis was the Neptunes’ original muse, and there are countless tracks that I could have picked for her appearance here – undeniable singles like ‘Milkshake’ or ‘Caught Out There’, or any from a multitude of great tracks from her first two albums, almost entirely produced and written by Pharrell and Chad. In the end though, I went with this sun-drenched lament from her debut, Kaleidoscope, still one of the greatest songs about the simple issue of missing the living fuck out of someone – the “hope you miss your flight” line at the end of the chorus really is a touch of pop genius.
See also: Kelis – ‘Milkshake, ‘Kelis – ‘Caught Out There’, Kelis – ‘Suspended’
3. Beenie Man feat. Mya – ‘Girls Dem Sugar’
Not ground-breaking in any sense, but a sugar-sweet single that remains one of the Neptunes’ best, and pretty much the perfect dancehall / R&B crossover. There’s about three sentences in Beenie Man’s intro that border on making sense, and one of them is “Neptune make number one tune.” Well no shit.
See also: Scarface feat. Faith Evans – ‘Someday’
4. Britney Spears – ‘Slave 4 U’
It’s easy to forget that in 2001, although Britney Spears was a superstar, she was pretty much the opposite of cool. She was music your little sister listened to. With ‘Slave 4 U’, still the rawest, sexiest track that Britney’s put her name to, The Neptunes (who wrote the song, as well as produced it) changed the world’s entire perception of her. It actually charted lower than any of the Britney songs that came before it, but mission accomplished: it had flipped her image on its head.
See also: N*Sync – Girlfriend
5. Justin Timberlake feat. Clipse – ‘Like I Love You’
In 2002, Christina Aguilera pulled the exact same trick as Britney did with ‘Dirrty’, upgrading from slick pop to something more sultry and sex-dripped. This followed later that year by a similar reinvention for boy band pin-up Justin Timberlake with ‘Like I Love You’. Guess who produced that one.
6. Clipse – ‘Grindin’
Yes, it’s a mind-numbingly obvious pick from all The Neptunes’ tracks for Clipse, but that’s almost the point: at their peak they were just as ruthlessly dark when making hit singles as they were doing mixtape or album tracks. Famously, no one ever suited Neptunes beats as well as The Clipse, and that’s basically because they’re the rapper equivalent: cold, dark and blunt on the surface, but just as the Neptunes had a clear musicality to them, Clipse would casually leave metaphors lying in their lyrics that you didn’t notice until the second or third listen.
See also: Clipse – ‘Chinese New Year’
7. Clipse – ‘Mr. Me Too’
…and ‘Mr. Me Too’ wasn’t bad either.
8. Rosco P Coldchain – ‘Hot’
It’s pretty much impossible to listen to have listened to all of the Neptunes’ beats, but this is as stark, cold and minimal as we’ve ever heard them get.
9. Snoop Dogg – ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’
Of course, ‘Hot’ was just an album track, on The Neptunes present Clones. But on ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’, Chad and Pharrell took the same formula – blunt kicks, mouth noises and that one crucial synth blast that completely inverts the track – and made it a number one single, glamming it up for the red carpet and adding Snoop. So lean that it makes ‘Crank That’ sound cluttered.
See also: P. Diddy – ‘D.I.D.D.Y.’
10. Ol’ Dirty Bastard – ‘Got Your Money’
If anyone ever tries to tell you the Neps don’t have the catchiest claps in hip-hop, play them this followed by ‘What Happened to that Boy’.
See also: Baby – ‘What Happened to that Boy’