'The Neptunes Present... Clones,' the rise of Pharrell, and the unfulfilled potential of Star Trak
15 years after its release, we remember the LP as both a celebration of Pharrell and Chad Hugo’s success, as well as a foreshadowing of what the future held.
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If you were a rapper, R&B artist or pop star that was in need of a hit record during the early aughts, odds are that your first move was to seek out the services of The Neptunes, the production duo who ruled the Billboard charts with an iron fist during the peak of their career. In an era rife with superstar producers and aspiring impresarios, The Neptunes stood out with their distinct sound and a complex mix of anonymity and ubiquity, which also defined the sum of the duo’s parts outside of the music. Comprised of Virginia natives Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, The Neptunes landed on the rap radar during the late 90s while churning out a succession of hits for a list of stars, including Ma$e (“Lookin’ At Me”), Noreaga (“Superthug”), and Ol’ Dirty Bastard (“Got Your Money”), but it wouldn’t be until the new millennium that the duo truly established themselves as household names.
Having proven themselves as the next hot boardsmen in hip-hop, The Neptunes’ profile skyrocketed in 2001, with the duo crafting some of the biggest songs of the year, lending their talents to everyone from P. Diddy and Usher to N’ Sync and Britney Spears. That would also be the year that Pharrell Williams began to emerge as a budding star as the more charismatic and sociable member of The Neptunes’ appearances on JAY-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It To Me),” Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass,” Jadakiss’ “Knock Yourself Out,” Fabolous’ “Young’n (Holla Back),” and in various music videos, making his voice and face increasingly recognizable. On the other hand, Chad Hugo, the more elusive member of the group, played the understated yin to Pharrell’s approachable yang, focused primarily on the music, allowing The Neptunes’ profile to rise while building a track record as the most prolific hit-makers in all of music.
In addition to their freelance work for various artists, Pharrell and Chad put more of the focus on their own musical efforts in 2001, joining forces with pal Shay Haley to revive N.E.R.D., a group the trio had formed as high school classmates back in Virginia. Unleashing N.E.R.D.’s debut album In Search Of… in Europe in August of that year—which later was certified gold after its worldwide release in 2002—The Neptunes were seemingly inescapable heading into 2002, a year during which Pharrell and Chad became more than producers, but moguls in the making. From the beginning of The Neptunes’ ascent up the music industry food chain, the duo were relentless in showcasing their own stable of talent, with their first discovery, Kelis, contributing vocals to songs by established artists that The Neptunes produced, and rap group Philly’s Most Wanted also making noise on the rap charts.
However, while those artists had record deals with other labels and were not officially The Neptunes’ artists, when Arista Records funded Star Trak, The Neptunes own imprint, in 2002, the duo wasted no time making a big splash, signing longtime collaborators Clipse to a record deal as the flagship artists of the label. Releasing their platinum-certified debut, Lord Willin’, in August later that year, the Clipse instantly became one of the more popular new acts in rap, evidence of The Neptunes’ ability to not only introduce new artists and create hits for the benefit of others, but themselves and their own camp as well.
While The Neptunes scored credits for massive radio hits like JAY-Z’s “Change Clothes,” Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful,” and Busta Rhymes’ “I Know What You Want,” 2003 was all about continuing to build Star Trak into a major force in the music industry, with one of their first steps to turning that goal into a reality being the release of The Neptunes Present… Clones in late summer 2003, August 19. A compilation album featuring Star Trak artists and some of The Neptunes’ most frequent and popular collaborators, Clones served as the culmination of Pharrell and Chad’s five-year climb to the top of the food chain and was as much of a celebration of their success as it was a foreshadowing of what the future held. Running 18 songs in length, Clones is an ambitious affair that instantly draws you in from the beginning with Busta Rhymes and Pharrell teaming up for “Light Your Ass on Fire,” a futuristic sounding club banger released as the album’s lead single. Powered by a stripped-down beat and Busta’s nimble flow, “Light Your Ass on Fire” finds Pharrell handling hook duties and adlibs, while he and Chad present what can be described as the 2003 equivalent to “Planet Rock.”
The Neptunes’ bread and butter may be their ability to produce hit records, however, the duo made sure to build their Star Trak roster around a core of elite lyricists headlined by the Clipse, who show up alongside future Re-Up Gang member Ab-Liva on “Blaze of Glory,” a rambunctious selection on which the three emcees trade verses atop a jittery backdrop. However, while the Clipse are the most well-known members of Star Trak’s stable of signees, Clones does a great job of shining the spotlight on Star Trak’s other rap artists, most notably on the remix to the Clipse’s Lord Willin’ standout “Hot Damn,” which features new verses from Pusha T and Malice, as well as appearances from Ab-Liva and Philly rep Rosco P. Coldchain (whom Star Trak acquired after a fierce bidding war). Positioning Coldchain as the next rapper to blow out of Star Trak, the “Hot Damn” remix was serviced as a single, with Coldchain anchoring the track with an epic closing verse.
After making his debut with a freestyle on the Clipse’s Lord Willin’ album, Norfolk, Virginia native and Star Trak artist Fam-Lay released his first full-length song “Rock ‘N Roll,” a menacing, yet catchy number steeped in dope-boy lingo that furthered the rapper’s buzz and resulted in a remix and accompanying music video featuring Lil Flip. While Star Trak is the central focus of Clones, the album also includes appearances from artists outside of the camp, with a number of The Neptunes’ previous collaborators contributing to the compilation. Yonker meets Kingston when Jadakiss and Supercut connect on “The Don of Dons (Put De Ting Pon Dem),” while Noreaga (“Put ‘Em Up”) and Ol’ Dirty Bastard (“Pop Shit”) both reunite with Pharrell and Chad, but one track that stands out from the pack is “Popular Thug,” which pairs Star Trak First Lady Kelis and her then-fiance Nas for a duet.
However, even with all of the superstar guests and rising talent in the mix, the one constant that remains throughout Clones is the presence of Pharrell, who flexes his own lyrical chops on several occasions and serves as the straw that stirs the drink. Williams may have been one of the more recognizable producers in rap prior to Clones, but the compilation also serves as the turning point where he would become as big, if not a bigger deal than many of the stars he and Chad Hugo produced for.
“Frontin’,” one of the two songs released from Clones in anticipation of the album, doubles as Pharrell’s debut solo single and finds the talented hook man crooning and harmonizing about an elusive lover over a funky, guitar-laden backdrop. Far from a refined vocalist, Pharrell’s screechy falsetto comes across as endearing and when paired with a masterful stanza from co-star JAY-Z, makes “Frontin’” simply undeniable, a sentiment the general public agreed with, resulting in the song climbing all the way to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the biggest hit from Clones.
Due to his rising profile, many viewed “Frontin’” as Pharrell following in the footsteps of P. Diddy, Timbaland, Swizz Beatz and other producers who stepped from behind the boards and in front of the mic for a full-length album during their career, however, he would downplay the suggestion in an interview shortly after the release of Clones, stating, “I believe in myself as a musician, as a beat-maker, as a producer, not necessarily as an artist.” However, Pharrell would ultimately make the transition into a full-blown artist in 2006, with the release of his debut solo studio album, In My Own Mind, as well as the DJ Drama-hosted In My Mind (Prequel) mixtape, both of which were well-received and cemented Pharrell as a favorite among rap purists, trendy tastemakers and casual fans alike.
In the wake of Clones, a lot of things changed regarding The Neptunes and Star Trak. After winning a Grammy for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, in 2004, The Neptunes would gradually begin to tend to projects individually, with Chad Hugo working with Ethiopian-American musician Kenna on multiple albums while Pharrell continued to pursue his own endeavors outside of The Neptunes, which would result in their production credits as a unit to diminish in the subsequent years.
However, the two continue to work with each other on a consistent basis, whether through their group N.E.R.D. or through exporting tracks to other artists. Initially hailed as the cornerstone of Star Trak, the Clipse would endure a bitter battle with Jive Records after Arista’s merger with BMG resulted in the group not being able to move over to Interscope with the rest of their labelmates. This, along with the incarceration of Rosco P. Coldchain on murder charges in 2008 and Fam-Lay’s debut album Traintogo being shelved by Def Jam, would prevent Star Trak from earning the same fanfare and staying power of other imprints of its era. Star Trak may never have reached its full potential as a record label, however, Clones remains the label’s crowning achievement, is one of the greatest compilations of its era, and a reminder of what could of been.
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