Today is Mr. Pharrell Williams’ 40th birthday, which means he’s been one of our finest and most innovative producers for the best part of two decades now. The Neptunes have become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget just how remarkable and unusual some of their productions are — so to celebrate Pharrell entering his fifth decade, we thought we’d round up a selection of our favorite Neptunes beats. There are so many to choose from that this is a pretty subjective exercise, of course, so do let us know your favorites, too.
Snoop Dogg feat. Pharrell — “Drop It Like It’s Hot”
If there’s one track that embodies the inventiveness of Pharrell and Chad Hugo at their best, it’s this one. “Drop It Like It’s Hot” is weird — who else would make a beat out of a tabla sample and tongue clicks? — it’s futuristic, and it’s catchy as hell. It pretty much resurrected Snoop’s career, and it also remains Pharrell’s biggest hit as a producer. Nearly a decade later, it still sounds like nothing else.
ODB feat. Kelis — “Got Your Money”
That rarest of pop alchemies — killer production, killer hook, and one of the most memorable raps ever committed to tape, courtesy of the endearingly deranged and much-missed Ol’ Dirty Bastard. ODB’s vocals are so good that it’s easy to lose track of how memorable the beat is — in particular, it highlights Pharrell’s liking for using wide, organic kick drum sounds (this sounds like it could be another tabla sample), a contrast to the punchy, electronic kicks that dominate so much of hip hop, and it’s interesting to listen carefully to how he makes the low end work, given that the track also features a pretty pounding bassline. Also: “I don’t have no trouble with you fucking me, but I got a little problem with you not fucking me,” remains one of the best lines ever.
Ludacris — “Southern Hospitality”
While we’re on endearingly eccentric rappers, we’d be remiss not to mention this classic from Atlanta lunatic Ludacris. The beat is an oddball mixture of eastern-influenced sounds, somewhat reminiscent of Timbaland’s work — there’s a Chinese-sounding flute in there, along with a triangle and other sounds whose provenance remains uncertain. And then there’s that weird farty synth that meanders in and out of the verse. (It’s instructive to listen to the instrumental to really appreciate the subtleties of the beat, as they tend to get lost a little amongst Ludacris’s frenetic delivery.)
Kelis — “Milkshake”
“Caught Out There” brought Kelis to worldwide attention, but this remains her most memorable moment. As with all Pharrell and Hugo’s best beats, it’s crafted from a combination of only a couple of ingredients that fit together in a way that no one else could or would have envisaged — in this case, a fat sawtooth synth riff and some conga samples. The beat barely changes throughout, but it’s the subtleties that make it work — the way the synths are pitched down during the bridge, the way the percussion slowly fills out the mix as the track goes on.
Gwen Stefani — “Hollaback Girl”
The Neptunes have sprinkled gold dust on plenty of pop stars’ careers — most memorably Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake — but this is definitely his best pop-tastic moment. Again, it’s a combination of ingredients that seem counterintuitive, but somehow work: a slamming, reverb-laden beat, a single bowel-churning bass drop, an acoustic guitar sample, and a synthesized trumpet sound. Gwen Stefani’s vocals are pretty much irrelevant, to be honest, although the song’s catchy enough.
Philly’s Most Wanted — “Cross the Border”
A breezy, Latin-influenced jam that’s built around an acoustic guitar loop, some Mariachi horns, and pleasantly vintage-sounding drum machine beats. (The uptempo flavor of the beat rather belies the song’s subject matter, which discusses the drug trade across the Mexican border, although in fairness these were the days before the Mexican government decided to “take on” the narco cartels, with disastrous results.) There’s nothing futuristic about this, but it’s a fine example of how versatile the Neptunes were at their peak.
N.O.R.E. — “Grimey”
One of the most notable early Neptunes tracks was Noreaga’s 1998 hit “Superthug,” and they reconvened with the newly renamed Puerto Rican rapper four years later for his third record God’s Favorite, with excellent results. This track is a one-note synth riff and percussion, and notably, there are only very minimal kick sounds, making a track that manages to be funky with virtually no bass — not until everything changes completely around the three-minute mark, anyway.
Clipse — “Grindin'”
There’s an argument to be made that The Neptunes’ best work was done with Clipse, so much so that it’s hard to choose just one track — but we’re gonna go with this one. At first listen, there’s nothing subtle or intricate about “Grindin’,” as its name would suggest — it’s a clattering, nasty beat that fills the whole mix, leaving just enough breathing room for No Malice and Pusha T’s vocals to sit on top. But put it on the headphones and you realize that even this has been sprinkled with Neptunes dust — the subtle hi-hat samples that slide into the track about halfway through, the quintessentially Pharrell xylophone-y sound that adorns the verses. But fundamentally, it’s just a banging hip hop beat. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
Mystikal feat. Pharrell — “Shake Ya Ass”
Similarly, there’s a distinctly old-school feel to this, both because Mystikal’s vocals sound distinctly like James Brown, and because The Neptunes’ production is minimalist and somehow vintage-sounding. As ever, the production simple — a synth sample, a punchy kick, skittering percussion — and it works.
N*E*R*D — “Lap Dance”
Whether there are any N*E*R*D tracks that warrant inclusion in best-of-Neptunes lists is a topic that ignites plenty of discussion on internet message boards, but we’re pretty happy to include this. It’s rap-rock done right (and considering how many abominations have been spawned in the pursuit of trying to combine the two genres, that’s a more significant achievement than it sounds).