It's so easy to get obsessed with the Neptunes. They produce practically every song on the radio, which would be a Ja Rule-sized hassle if so many of them didn't sound right on the money. Nelly's "Hot in Here"? Yup, that's one of theirs. N.O.R.E.'s "Nothin'"? That's theirs, too.

How could you not love these guys? After all, they made Britney Spears sound like a woman, Babyface sound like playa of the year, and 'N Sync sound like they have hair on their nuts. As if all that weren't enough, In Search Of…, their much-anticipated debut album released earlier this year under the band name N.E.R.D., was quickly anointed the masterpiece of renegade rap/rock/R&B that it is.

So, if the Neptunes-produced debut of fellow Virginian rap crew Clipse's Lord Willin' sounds like a disappointment, just know it's not the super-producing duo's fault. Well, maybe it's their fault just a little bit.

As the first artists to blast off on Star Trak, the Neptunes' boutique label, Clipse doesn't exhibit enough distinction to make people believe that this new label isn't gonna give 'em the same ol' bullshit. Judging by Lord Willin', the Neptunes' vision of the future of music appears to be stranded in the present.

From a musical standpoint, Willin' does have its moments. Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams don't skimp on ghettofying the backbeat for their protégés. The opener, the saxophone-heavy funk track "Young Boy," effectively introduces the team, brothers Pusha T and Malice, as they recall their childhood days of striving to become the young hustlas they say they are today. The standout tracks have the boys unabashedly admitting their urban-playboy status, like the bouncy "Ma, I Don't Love Her," featuring hook work from Faith Evans, and the jarring "Gangsta Lean."

But as the title not-so-blatantly implies, Willin' deals more with redemption than even Clipse cares to admit. On quite a few tracks, Pusha T and Malice present themselves as (studio?) gangstas with hearts of gold. When they're not selling rocks, ducking bullets and snagging up chickenheads, they long for somebody, anybody, to save their asses. This is especially true on their finale track, "I'm Not You," which is supposed to be an anti-playa hater anthem, but actually ends up being the boys' woeful S.O.S. Malice ends the track with lyrics like "It shames me to no end / To feed poison to those who could very well be my kin…All of them lost souls and I'm their Jesus," while guest star Jadakiss adds, "God is great, the devil is a motherfucker."

Willin' could've been a more daring and honest album if it concentrated on the cry for help. But alas, the album falls into too many stereotypical holes. Pusha T and Malice oversell the Virginia of discarded crack vials, low-maintenance hoochies and stray bullets so much that they forget how unoriginal that can sound.

If the Neptunes wanted to christen the launch of their new label properly, then they should have done everyone a favor and released Wanderland, the wonderful second album from their wild-haired prodigy Kelis. But apparently, certain behind-the-scenes factors have prohibited the album from getting released in the States. A great record being released everywhere in the world except here in the U.S. of A.? Now, that's some criminal shit we can believe.

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Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey