Tom Sinclair
August 22, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, a.k.a. the Neptunes, have used their production skills to give tunes by everyone from Justin Timberlake to Snoop Dogg that voluptuous, ultramodern sheen they’ve all but patented. But calling their new album — on which they produce tracks by Nelly, Snoop, Clipse, Busta Rhymes, and others — The Neptunes Present…Clones is somewhat misleading. As the 2002 Williams/Hugo side project, N.E.R.D.’s In Search of…, proved, the pair are so stylistically peripatetic that it’s all but impossible to pigeonhole their putative ”sound.”

That commitment to eclecticism is apparent throughout Clones. The boys craft dizzyingly carnivalesque sonic swirls for Rhymes, Ludacris, Dirt McGirt (the former Ol’ Dirty Bastard), and other tough-talking alpha-male types to rap over, then turn around and deliver a moody gem like Williams’ ”Frontin’.” Halfway through the disc, they surprise you with the sleek pop-rock of Spymob’s ”Half-Steering Half-Eating Ice Cream,” the High Speed Scene’s naughty arena-punk anthem ”F — -N’ Spend,” and N.E.R.D.’s new-wavish ”Loser” (not to be confused with the Beck classic). They even craft a jittery dancehall groove for Super Cat’s ”The Don of Dons.” Overall, there may be a tad too much blustery hip-hop here — these guys are at their best when they let their sensitive sides shine through. Still, seekers of weird and variegated musical kicks will certainly want to snap up Clones toot sweet.

And speaking of the unexpected, cock an ear to New Sacred Cow, the recently released debut album from Ethiopian-born, Virginia-raised Kenna, who enlisted former schoolmate Hugo (here working without Williams and calling himself Chase Chad) to produce his CD. With Kenna’s fey vocal style and myriad layers of hookily atmospheric keyboards, Cow recalls nothing so much as early-’80s British synth-pop after a postmillennial makeover. That’s actually a good thing. (Go ahead, admit it — you always sorta liked A Flock of Seagulls.) And it’s an even better thing that Kenna, who cowrote the bulk of the songs with Hugo, has a knack for crafting the kind of perfect pop gems that go down easy in any era. What the hip-hop cognoscenti will make of Hugo’s collaborations with Kenna is anybody’s guess. But we’re waiting with bated breath for one or both of the Neptunes to liberate those heretofore unsuspected prog-rock skeletons from their closet. ”Clones”: B; ”Cow”: B+

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