The Absolute Worst of the Neptunes (1997-2006)

Pete Hunt explores the all-time great production duo's most notable missteps in their first decade.
By    July 2, 2020

We keep the streets so numb, they call us Novocaine. Please support Passion of the Weiss by subscribing to our Patreon.

Pete Hunt is outside of Popeyes eating chicken and fries.

What’s your favorite Neptunes song?

When you ask that question, nine times out of ten the response will be a track recorded during the duo’s golden era— a 10-year run that begins with Mase’s “Lookin’ at Me,” arguably climaxes with “Grindin” (or maybe “What Happened To That Boy”), and ends with every single banger on Hell Hath No Fury

Pharrell and Chad’s impact over this stretch on the entire pop music landscape (“I’m a Slave 4 U,” “Hot in Herre,” “Rock Your Body,” and countless other Winamp “Party Mix” smashes) is well-documented. The secret of their success was, first and foremost, their ability to create sparsely arranged, instantly compelling grooves using a futuristic sonic palette—and then slap a monster hook on them. 

But the Neptunes’ ubiquity also reflected the sheer volume of their production output. In 2001 alone, the duo served as producers or remixers on a staggering 100+ songs, including three albums (Kelis’s Wanderland, the bulk of Philly’s Most Wanted’s Get Down or Lay Down, and their own N.E.R.D. album, In Search Of…). And “production” here doesn’t mean Martin Hannett or Steve Albini twiddling knobs behind the soundboard, but the entire beat making and chorus-writing package. 

When you’re working at that pace — no matter how talented you are — you would expect the results to be uneven. It’s honestly amazing, though, how often even their lower-profile collaborations (like “Ola” by Beenie Man featuring… umm… Steve Perry of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies) turned out to be pretty solid. Still, even at their absolute peak, the Neptunes were responsible for quite a few tracks that missed the mark. Here are the worst from the best. 

Kid Rock — “Cowboy (Neptunes Remix)” 

We start at the bottom. No amount of beatsmithing was going to save “Cowboy,” but this is still a pretty lazy effort. The few musical elements in the original song that “work” have been stripped clean and replaced with what sounds like a keyboard preset labeled “Egyptian.” Absent the full band arrangement, Rock’s vocals sound thin and impotent. (Compare David Lee Roth’s isolated vocals from “Runnin’ With The Devil,” which are vibrant and lifegiving!) You can try to rationalize the Neptunes’ questionable rock remixes from this era (including “Nookie” and somehow “Sympathy for the Devil”) as favors to labels or A&R execs or the trucker hat industry, but the truth is that Pharrell just seemed to like this stuff.  

Kelis — “I Don’t Care Anymore”

Urban Renewal is an absolute train wreck of a tribute album to Phil Collins. The Kelis and Pharrell cover of “I Don’t Care Anymore” is actually one of the more interesting tracks—you suspect they both really like the original—but that’s grading on a curve that includes Lil’ Kim’s “In the Air Tonite,” Brandy and Ray J’s “Another Day in Paradise,” and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s (much less interesting than it sounds) take on “Sussudio.” The beat here is clearly from the same Korg Triton clavichord setting that produced “Superthug” and “Lapdance,” which seems promising. But the arrangement is so busy that it doesn’t haven’t space to build.

Tha Liks — “Best U Can” 

[ed. note: this is a patently insane choice and I will ride for this song till the end of the time. That said, I believe in freedom of speech and the right to be wrong]

So this one was actually a minor hit in 2001, reaching #64 on the Billboard R&B/Hip Hop chart. And if you’re hearing it here for the first time, you might question its inclusion on this list. It’s a solid track, right? Maybe… but if you were an Alkaholiks fan when this dropped, you understand that “Best U Can” is total bullshit [ed. note part 2: The Source gave this album 4 mics and I will stand by it!] . After three albums of modest underground success, the crew changed their name to ensure Walmart rack placement while their label brought on hired-gun producers to give them a hot single. (Summon your inner rockist and you’ll hear R.E.M. signing to Warner or Jawbreaker dropping Dear You.) The beat + Pharrell hook they paid for sounded just like every other Neptunes song in rotation at the time, which is why this was only a minor hit.   

The Hives  — “T.H.E.H.I.V.E.S.” 

The “Neptunes” produced two songs on The Hives’ Black and White album, although by most accounts only Pharrell was involved. The first one, “Well All Right!,” is a really great, swinging track that, if you listen with the right ears, sounds like a dry run for “Come Get it Bae.” Alas, second cut “T.H.E.H.I.V.E.S.” doesn’t lift off until the bridge. Until then, it’s just Pelle Almqvist spelling the band’s name over a “Hella Good”-style electro-funk bass line and flickering guitar. It’s not a bad song when heard in the middle of the album, but as a single it’s pretty limp. 

N.E.R.D. Bobby James”

In Search Of…, the first N.E.R.D. album, became something of a Snyder-cut curiosity, as the original version (released exclusively in Europe) was reportedly much better than the re-recorded “rock version” that dropped a year later in the United States. Those of us who shelled out for import found that the differences were pretty minimal, and that—truth be told—a lot of the songs were pretty bland with or without the guitar. There were clear highlights, sure, but even the songs that worked seemed kinda… schmaltzy? It seemed odd that Pharrell, a clear master of choruses, wrote such corny and stilted verses (“Yesterday I tied two rocks together / That symbolize our lives /  And threw them in the ocean / Now they’re on the ocean floor coastin'”). “Bobby James” is at once an album highlight (the lovely production) and cringefest (the “just say no” lyrics). 

N.E.R.D. — “Don’t Worry About It”

N.E.R.D.’s follow-up, Fly or Die, doubled down on both the rock elements (Chad learned to play guitar!) and the cheeseball vibe (“Her ass is a spaceship that I want to ride”). The Lenny Kravitz-supported “Thrasher” probably nails the sound they were going for, but tracks like “Backseat Love,” “Don’t Worry About It,” and “Jump” come across as rock’n’roll cosplay (actual lyric: “Punk rock, tattoos, leather jacket / Good grades don’t come with that package”). The production and arrangements throughout are so mechanical that you wonder why they even bothered with actual musicians. (Seriously, listen to the clapping at the end of “Don’t Worry About It.”) 

LL Cool J — “Niggy Nuts” 

The Neptunes actually produced five songs on 10, LL’s surprisingly solid 2002 album. Their other collaborations work well, especially if you like the Neptunes doing “Change Clothes”-style smooth jazz and LL in Lothario mode. But “Niggy Nuts” is just trying way, way too hard to recapture an aggressive “Mama Said Knock You Out” vibe that the rapper-turned-NCIS-actor had already outgrown. Another problem: the decision to build the entire beat around a headache-inducing whistling synth sound. 

Cassius — “Eye Water (feat. Pharrell)” 

You have to think Chad and Shay conspired to keep this one off of a N.E.R.D. album. Production here is presumably handled by Cassius members Philippe Zdar (RIP) and Boombass, but lyrics like “They discovered nuclear power / Not for the best but for the worst” could only come from one Pharrell Lanscilo Williams. 

Ice Cube  — “In the Late Night Hour“ 

“In the Late Night Hour” was one of two new tracks included on Ice Cube’s 2001 Greatest Hits album from Priority. The Pusha T chorus suggests this one may have been originally intended for the Clipse, whose quiet menace would have been a better contrast to the synth-driven beat than Cube’s gruff delivery. The evocation of past hits at the outset (“Straight out of Compton / a crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube / And I’m rollin’ with the motherfuckin’ Neptunes”) also sets this one up to disappoint. 

T.I. featuring Pharrell and Common — “Goodlife”

“Featuring Common” was already a warning sign in 2006, and sure enough this one manages to drag down what should have been the climactic final stretch of the otherwise classic King. Neptunes production was largely a one-man affair at this point in the timeline, with Chad Hugo presumably needing a break from the endless production schedule. Pharrell is usually credited as the “synth-pop/funk/percussion” half of the partnership, while Chad is the “zapping outer-space synths sci-fi guy.” Their collaborations probably didn’t break down that neatly on a track-by-track basis, but there was clearly creative alchemy when they were working together. Hard to say if Chad’s left-field contributions would have improved something like “Goodlife,” but outer-space synths wouldn’t have hurt.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!