“The best song wasn’t the single,” sang Frank Ocean at the start of his 2012 Pharrell Williams-helmed swooner “Sweet Life,” and neither were a number of the producer’s greatest cuts. None of these five songs came close to topping the singles chart, but those looking to unlock the essence of Williams’ hit-crafting genius could find far worse places to start.
Kendrick Lamar, ‘Good Kid’ (2012)
Williams rarely dwelled on the bluer notes of the scale during his hitmaker heyday, but his contribution to Lamar’s “Good Kid, MAAD City” was a masterpiece of melancholia. Perhaps his lushest, most immediately cinematic production, “Good Kid” saw the producer craft a lonely nocturne by deftly layering ominous chimes, a sly Roy Ayers hat-tip and a mournful trumpet line while Lamar’s lyrics sketched scenes of gang warfare and police brutality. The result was a standout track on 2012’s standout album, a moody soundscape that wouldn’t be out of place on a late-’70s Curtis Mayfield record.
The road to “Get Lucky” begins here. Recruited to remix Daft Punk at a time when the worlds of U.S. hip-hop and Euro dance music rarely intersected, Williams and Chad Hugo injected a patina of VIP-lounge soul into the French duo’s robot rock, melding their seemingly disparate styles with ease. Daft Punk returned the favor for NERD’s equally entrancing “Hypnotize You” in 2010, and three years later, Williams’ work with the masked producers yielded multiple Grammys.
Justin Timberlake, ‘Like I Love You’ (2002)
It would probably be an exaggeration to credit Timberlake’s adult career wholly to the Neptunes, but it was remarkable how quickly this debut single erased all serious discussion of the newly solo singer’s boy-band past. Driven by a classic funk breakbeat and a minor-key Spanish guitar groove, the track calibrated a masterful balance of vinegar and honey, teen pop sweetness and hip-hop grit. “Rock Your Body” was the bigger hit, but “Like I Love You” set the tone for the next decade of Timberlake’s output.
Kelis, ‘Caught Out There’ (1999)
Kelis’ debut, “Kaleidoscope,” was essentially the prototype for the Neptunes’ subsequent years of “TRL” domination, and their vision for post-millennial pop was never articulated more clearly. Atop a backing bed of bloops and whirrs that suggested an eight-bit videogame composer having a nervous breakdown, the album’s centerpiece maintained an effortless tunefulness while allowing the diva to deliver one of the great scorched-earth scorned-woman perfs of recent memory. “Hell Hath No Fury” indeed.
Clipse, ‘Grindin’’ (2002)
The Neptunes’ collaboration with Snoop Dogg produced “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” perhaps the most minimalist rap song to ever top the singles chart. But that track was practically Baroque compared to this skeletal banger from Clipse. Keeping time with finger snaps and what sounded like the clang of slammed car doors, Williams and Hugo crafted an ingeniously unpredictable beat pattern that made such indulgences as bass, guitar and hooks seem perfectly irrelevant. Even imagining an alternate universe where Williams and Co. never remade Top 40 in their own image, their legacies as hip-hop visionaries would have been safe with this.