If you want to check the evidence supporting the supreme production status of the Neptunes look no further than Lord Willin', the debut release from the coke-dealing mid-South-representing Clipse. Sometime emcees Pusha T and Malice spit slow and hard about Virginia's drug-dealing scene, an average tale at best, but when backed by the savvy beats laid down by most-mentioned Pharrell Williams the tracks bubble to life and lift street balling to a bass-vibrating high. "No, no, no. Rapper, I'm not you. I live this shit." Pusha T and Malice spend plenty of time explaining to listeners that they are indeed cocaine-pushing players ("You and me, we are not the same") and that mike skills are just something that comes naturally. Their delivery is mellow and smoothed-out, a down-home style you'll either groove to or find grating, but even without the anthem hit "Grindin'" there's enough dirt on display to make room for the Norfolk scene. Be it glimpses into their Grandma's snow-cooking trade (seems it's a family business), ego-checking, or wrestling with the demons of supplying a brain-killing narcotic to their own brothers, the boys from VA come clean with no remorse and a "do what I gotta do" attitude. Lil' Wayne and Jadakiss get in on the action, pushing Dirty South across the wax with timely cameos, but even if no one showed up to lay any vocals, this CD could still rock a house party.

Banging with the best, Williams shows he can take anyone and make them a star. Whether he slides Curtis Mayfield-style (the rolling "Young Boy" and "Gangsta Lean") or jump-starts a V-8 power bassline ("Famlay Freestyle"), Williams is a hip-hop Quincy Jones, knowing the where, when, and how to make a track soar. Everything comes to a stop, pop, and holler on the crown jewel "Grindin'," a tribal-beating table-setter just waiting for a voice to brag over. Two remixes of the cut conclude the set and leave no doubt how Malice and Pusha T will be remembered. Do they have the talent (or even the desire) to attempt a followup? Time will tell. As they mention over and again, blow made Clipse rich and rap is just a sideshow. But for Williams and his Neptune clan, music is the drug of choice and right now no one pitches better.

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Kevin McLaughlin