October 5, 2006

Flavor of the Decade

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This week’s column originated with a frantic, foolish, and ultimately ineffective attempt to contact someone who, unbeknownst to me at the time, is one of the most influential forces in contemporary hip hop. Such an inspired idea came to me when my roommate and I, innocently perusing his iTunes for upbeat music to Swiffer the kitchen to, noticed that three of the selected tracks – Furtado’s “Promiscuous” and Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” and “SexyBack” – either featured or were produced by Timbaland, a name neither of us recognized. Having a considerable musical prowess between the two of us, it got into our heads that we were the first to make this connection, the first to give this man his dues. We decided to squirrel away our discovery, figuring we could contact him, conduct an interview and use my column to expose this unsung prodigy to the world, thereby boosting him into the international limelight.
Okay, so aside from the fact that my readership consists primarily of my housemates, my boyfriend and my mother, it was obvious that we were a little rustic on pop music in the last ten years – something we only realized after spending a good fifteen minutes Googling “timbaland,” “contact” and “e-mail.” Perhaps my naïveté can be blamed on years of a strict indie diet, and the ease with which one can nowadays befriend his or her favorite bands on Myspace (when Death from Above 1979 was still together, their friends page consisted primarily of blonde, large-breasted fangirls). In any case, what I finally discovered is that Timbaland was – and, in fact, still is – responsible for some of the best, most original hip hop, R&B, and pop tracks from ’96 on. Having worked with artists as diverse as Wyclef, Nas, Beck and Cee-Lo, his more memorable productions include Ludacris’ “Roll Out,” Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?,” and Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin,” not to mention my own personal favorite, Missy Elliot’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” – an irrefutable milestone for female hip-hop artists.
Once you get past the initial shock at having essentially grown up with the man’s repertoire, it’s clear that both Timbaland’s vocal and production style have a distinct, easily-recognizable sound. Whether given a featured solo or simply muttering in the background, his voice is soft, guttural, and always hinting at the vaguest of Southern accents. The result of this combination is pure aural sex, a quality which allows him to reprise his role as one half of a sexually frustrated (“Are You That Somebody?”) or satisfied (“Promiscuous,” “SexyBack”) duo. Yes, people: Timberlake’s new single is very, very ambiguous.
Even more interesting are his production skills, which wed elements of both R&B and hip hop. Slow-paced, minimalist beats provide the backbone for low bass notes, punctuated occasionally by high-end synth. His work often utilizes foreign instrumentation, such as in “Big Pimpin’,” “Indian Flute” or that striking sitar outro of Xscape’s “My Secret.” Much of his music is also interspersed with odd sound effects, like that eerie baby-esque noise in “Are You That Somebody” that unfortunately reminds me of a certain withdrawal-scene in Trainspotting whenever I hear it. Finally, and perhaps most fascinating, is Timbaland’s mantra dictating little or no sampling. Now, whether or not there is some sort of morality attached to sampling is not for me to decide (one of my favorite albums right now is DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist’s “Brainfreeze”). But it is undeniable that his longstanding adherence to this synthetic purism seems to have caused a shift in hip-hop production as we know it, especially in light of RJD2’s own recent (and, frankly, shocking) decision to go sample-free.
Unfortunately, Timbaland’s solo work – or rather, his work outside of the realm of the “featured” – is a mere afterthought in light of these big-name collaborations. His most recent album with longtime partner Magoo, Under Construction, Pt II, was released over three years ago. Although not a bad listen, it isn’t as good as his first few releases (Welcome to Our World, also with Magoo, and Tim’s Bio), which in turn aren’t as good as his collaborative feats. Then again, with two songs in the Billboard Top 10 in the last month alone, and rumors of upcoming work with Missy Elliot, Ludacris, Bjork and Coldplay’s Chris Martin, I doubt he has much to complain about these days.