In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
We got to hear new takes on songs that Pharrell Williams contributed background vocals to, featured in, or starred in yesterday, but now it is time to go behind the scenes.
The power producer duo of The Neptunes have tallied many awards from Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Awards for Best Producer of the Year in 2004 to Best Producer of the Decade in 2009 and twenty-four top 10 hits between the late ’90s and the ’00s. They have also been nominated for the upcoming 2020 spot in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
As consumers of their hits, we often don’t know who is behind the sound. I’m the first to admit that I had no idea any of these songs involved Pharrell Williams before I started looking into Williams’ production credits, and for every song featured on this list, there are many more equally popular hits that we don’t touch on. How many songs that conjure up a memory for you would not be the same without the talented Neptunes?
Jenny Owen Youngs – Hot in Heere (Nelly cover)
This song was the second single off of Nelly’s second album, Nellyville (his first, Country Grammar, turns twenty years old this year). It won the first Grammy Award for Best Male Rap Solo Performance (the best rap solo performance category was divided by gender in 2003, but recombined in 2005) and was his first number one hit on the Billboard Top 100. Pharrell co-wrote the song and produced it as part of The Neptunes. The song is iconic; it even gets some love from Jane Austen fans. This cover is so on the nose it loops back to being almost sincere. The slightly drawn out pronunciation of “here” is the perfect homage to the spelling of the song title. Youngs’s attention to detail is also evident in her change of “let it hang all out” to “Jenny just fall out,” complete with some background ’90s punk rock vocals to emphasize the change.
Buddy – Milkshake (Kelis cover)
Speaking of iconic, everyone knows that Kelis’s milkshake brings all the boys to the yard. But did you know that Pharrell co-wrote and produced this song as The Neptunes? The Neptunes were heavily involved in Kelis’s other music as well, especially her earlier work. This song, featured in Mean Girls and called “brilliant” by Pitchfork, was actually first offered to Britney Spears, and I bet she is bummed she passed on it. However, Kelis opened for Spears during her tour promoting the In the Zone album, so lucky fans got to enjoy the “Milkshake”/”Toxic” combination. This angsty version of “Milkshake” is still rather earnest even though the genre bending is pretty extreme. The “la la”s have Daria energy, and overall the song is a lot less cheerful. Perhaps it’s the introvert’s interpretation of “Milkshake;” alas, there are too many boys in the yard.
P.S. Did you know Kelis performed a cover of “Brass in My Pocket” for the soundtrack of Just Like Heaven?
Sophia Bel – I’m a Slave 4 U (Britney Spears cover)
Britney Spears did get a Pharrell collaboration, though. He co-wrote and produced this song as part of The Neptunes for her third album (when she was not a girl, not yet a woman, feeling overprotected, and covering Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n Roll”). This cover takes a provocative song and makes it more appropriate for a subtle groove that you’d hear at a coffee shop or hole in the wall bar. The bass and trumpet interludes add a jazzy ambiance that contrasts the lyrics.
Kelly Clarkson – Hella Good (No Doubt cover)
Pharrell co-wrote this song for No Doubt (still as the Neptunes) for the Rock Steady album, the last before the band went on a long hiatus. Then the duo went on to co-write and produce “Hollaback Girl” on Gwen Stefani’s first solo album, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. Kelly Clarkson loves a good cover, even instituting a “kellyoke” segment on her talk show. Here she channels Gwen Stefani in look (houndstooth + red lipstick) and sound. However, Clarkson knows how to make a song her own, adding some falsetto to the “and who would have thought it’d be the two of us” line.
Sadcore Boy – APESHIT (The Carters cover)
Pharrell, on his own this time, co-wrote and produced this single off of The Carters first joint album, Everything is Love. Like Timbaland, Pharrell also has a production credit on Beyoncé’s self titled album (for “Blow”). “APESHIT” goes mellow in this cover. The sparse background music is still driven by a high-hat beat, but it’s much less prominent than the original’s beat. Instead of strident assertions, this version reflects on success in a more pensive way.