by Michael Goldberg
Monday, April 1, 2002
Inventing The New Funk
Pair the Neptunes and Kelis and what you get is state-of-the-art groove music
In the '70s and '80s, we would have called some of The Neptunes' music "funk" and the rest of it "soul." These days, I'm not sure what you call it. Hip-hop? Electronic? Dance? Post-New Jack Swing? Post-New Jill Swing? Or maybe those good ol' terms "funk" and "soul" still hold. Whatever you wanna call it, it's infectious groove music both soulful and funky.
Post-hip-hop funk draws on sounds familiar, obscure and exotic, sampled or played live in the studio (or played live and then sampled), all in the service of the groove. And at the moment, The Neptunes, who also go by the name N.E.R.D. for their recent solo debut, In Search of... (Virgin), are kings of the funk world. They're the ultra-pricey, in-demand production team whose services have been used by Babyface, Tha Liks, Ray J, Usher, *NSYNC, Britney Spears, Jermaine Dupri, Ice Cube and No Doubt, Jay-Z, Michael Jackson and others. The stars want some of the magic of The Neptunes' grooves to rub off on them.
It's as masters of their own universe, producing and co-writing Kelis' Wanderland (Virgin) (and her debut, Kaleidoscope) and their own album, that the Neptunes, Chad Hugo and Pharell Williams, are truly able to strut their stuff. Their talents are quite extraordinary. Just check the vocal arrangement on "Bobby James" (off In Search of...,) where old-school soul vocals meet a typically fresh and minimal instrumental track.
In fact, a deep understanding of just how little is needed to make a track seduce the listener is one of the secrets to The Neptunes' success. Another is an intuitive feel for hooky beats dig the rhythm track beneath "Stay Together" (also off their album).
While In Search of... is strong, Wanderland (out in Europe since late 2001, but with no firm U.S. release date yet) may well be the duo's masterpiece. Pairing the nearly always innovative tracks with Kelis' voice was a brilliant idea back in '99 when Kaleidoscope was released, and the combo is even stronger this time around both The Neptunes and Kelis have grown as artists. Just try to ignore "Young, Fresh n' New"!
The Neptunes' sound starts with a rhythm track that sounds programmed. If you focus just on the percussion as you listen to Wanderland, you'll find that each track offers an unexpected rhythmic twist and turn. Sometimes they use what sound like samples of a traditional drum kit, as on the rockish "Perfect Day"; more often they use just a few synthesized or sampled sounds to create a new beat.
Over the rhythm they typically layer sparse keyboards (they like a variation on a clavinet sound, with its roots in Stevie Wonder's '70s hit, "Superstition"). Often some of these synth sounds are part of the groove, while others add mood, melody or both. That's it. No walls of sound. Just a deadly skeletal setup for the vocals.
Now about those vocals. On Wanderland, while Kelis is front and center, delivering the perfect attitude and approach for each song (by turns seductive, independent, sexy, strong, hurt, betrayed, angry), The Neptunes arrange background vocals (sometimes their own, sometimes Kelis') to make the lead parts even more potent.
There are numerous examples of The Neptunes and Kelis totally syncing up throughout Wanderland, but one of my faves is the Dre-influenced "Popular Thug," with the irresistible hook of Kelis repeating the phrase "Make my record skip."
My only caveat has to do with some of the lyrics. I figure these albums are aimed at teenagers, and maybe even folks edging toward 25. But even so, I just wish the lyrics were on par with the music. On Wanderland, Kelis is mostly in the role of a girl looking for love and sex and freedom. Nothing wrong with that. But there is something wrong with such clichéd lines as "You make all my days brand new" and "Early in the morning/ The thought of sex is soaring/ Like a plane" (both from "Flash Back").
Still, the tracks here are so "fresh n' new" that I figure I've gotta look past the words and just experience the pure sound. It's too good to ignore.