Timbaland sure is on the radio a lot, even when he’s not. Turn on Hot 97 right now, wait 15 minutes, and you’ll hear either Aaliyah’s “Try Again,” Nas and Ginuwine’s “You Owe Me,” or the Lox’s “Ryde or Dye Chick/Bitch,” all of which he officially produced. He’s Bill Gates in terms of market share, but his aesthetic dominance is like Apple’s. When you see a computer desktop running Windows, you’re seeing a jacked-up version of a Mac interface circa ’95. Similarly, when you hear Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name,” that new Harpo DeBarge song, or any production by Cyptron, Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs, or Rodney “Darkchild” Jenkins, you’re hearing Timbaland as shareware, generally programmed in his ’98 style. No matter who the artist of record is, r&b in 2000 is Timbaland, just like funk in 1970 was James Brown.
Rewind to 1996. Quiet storm r&b? The immobile Wu-Tang thump? Timothy Mosley said “No, no, no” like Destiny’s Child and offered his playful, syncopated machine funk as the Thesis. Between ’96 and ’97, tracks like “Hot Like Fire,” “Up Jumps Da Boogie,” “Luv 2 Luv U,” and “The Rain” illustrated his main points: irregular hi-hat patterns, rhythmic hiccups, big Swiss cheese pauses, and noises drawn from video games, mouths, TV shows, anything and everything but the old-school funk records mined for hip-hop’s first 15 years.
The high point of this first chapter was also the turning point. Timbaland used 1998’s Dr. Dolittle soundtrack as an opportunity for Wu-like maximized dissemination, producing a full third of the album and hitching affiliated tricycles like Playa up to the monster truck of Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody,” which took Tim into the Top 10 pop album charts for the first time. “Are You” can be recognized blocks away, from two notes. The rhythm is literally arresting: stopping, starting, and chunking along like a Metallica riff, the vocals submissively Mickey Moused to it. Add the baby noises and a creamy chorus written by Steve “Static” Garrett of Playa (Mosley’s best house songwriter) and you’ve got the top and bottom that broadbanded Timbaland’s vision. R&B said yes, yes, yes, and the sweatshop knockoffs started to flow.
Missy’s 1999 album Da Real World was Tim’s Antithesis, an attempt to stay ahead of biters’ jaws. Enacting a scorched-earth policy, Tim got rid of the trademarks but forgot to replace them with anything, producing Da Real Nap. On the other side of prime time, he paired Aaliyah with Nas on “You Won’t See Me Tonight.” Cognitive dissonance, lame track.
But even Tim’s failures bear seeds and show roots. “She’s a Bitch” found new life as a dancehall beat, voiced on at least five Jamaican 45s last year. Not a surprise—dancehall and Miami bass have always been Tim’s secret spices. (Dancehall and Miami bass labels don’t generally send out big promo mailings, so the music remains invisible to most critics, which may explain why the red herring of drum and bass keeps being brought up when trying to explain Tim’s beats.) The dancehall link is most audible on 1997’s “Money Talks” by Lil’ Kim and Andrea Martin, a Tim gem. The chorus is lifted from Shabba and Krystal’s “Twice My Age,” one of the ’90s’ biggest digital reggae tunes, but not exactly a hip-hop or r&b staple. And many of Tim’s sledgehammer kick and snare sounds—half music, half medical procedure—are lifted straight from dancehall. (Other than Tim, KRS, and Busta, does anyone in hip-hop even care about dancehall?)
Nineteen ninety-nine is when it became clear that, as with James’s brand new bag, Tim’s musical thesis was rich enough to sustain a whole field of artists, some of whom execute certain ideas better than the Author himself. Though Missy, Timba’s main melodist, is good at writing hooks, she too often stops there, leaving pop workmen like Rodney Jerkins the room to one-up Missy and Tim with through-composed gems like “Say My Name.” She’kspere’s letter-perfect Timba rhythms and pop-friendly work made the rest of Destiny’s Child’s The Writing’s on the Wall the Aaliyah album Aaliyah didn’t make. The Neptunes kept the hectic space bounce alive with their Super Mario shoot-outs and block-sized beats on Kelis’s Kaleidoscope, the Missy album Missy should have made. But between Cyptron’s pleasantly brutal and She’kspere’s cyber-light, the production on TLC’s Fan Mail is the highest bidder to date on the Timbaland style. (Extra points for actual concepts go to TLC themselves.)
Perhaps the hip-hop competition scared Tim back into shape. Though a serious chart threat, Swizz Beats’s productions sound like a guy road-testing his Casio presets at the Nuremberg Rally. The chart part, though, signifies big to Tim. There’s Cash Money’s Mannie Fresh, who only bats .300 because he produces 75 albums a year. Even better for Dirty South bounce is Chris “Tricky” Stewart, who took JT Money into brilliantly weird territory on last year’s Pimpin On Wax. But I think what lit the match under Timbaland was the return of paterfamilias Dre. Tim’s beats and squeals and dropouts are circa now; in 1991, Dre’s synths and long cinematic skits dominated hip-hop. Though Dr. Dre—2001 doesn’t exactly sound like progress, Dre’s soigné beats are still louche enough to make the party people say oui oui in a very platinum way.
And so, spurred on, Tim has returned to form in 2000. But he’s not what you’re hearing on the radio now. Aaliyah’s “Try Again” is the lead single from the Romeo Must Die soundtrack, Tim’s attempt to duplicate Dolittle‘s diversified success. Though “Try Again” has a nice acid bass line and fun quotes from both Rakim and The X-Files, the chorus lyrics are shy of rousing (“If at first you don’t succeed/dust yourself off and try again”) and the hook is too amelodic. On the remaining Tim-produced Romeo tracks, Timbaland and Magoo ride a good ’98-style beat on “We at It Again” but reiterate why they are hip-hop’s least-awaited duo. Ginuwine’s “Simply Irresistible” is a good Prince rip but nowhere as great as last year’s underrated 100% Ginuwine. Romeo‘s non-Timbaland songs prove his hegemony by sounding so much like him you’d be hard-pressed to tell the butter from Parkay: for instance Rapture and E Seats, who once again make Destiny’s Child Tim’s Ghost of Christmas Future.
It’s on Jay-Z’s Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter, though, that Tim becomes that somebody again. He treats his four tracks not as chances for side money but as the debut of Timbaland, Vol. 3 . . . the Synthesis. He’s ditched the obvious signifiers (I had to check the booklet each time to figure out who was doing the beat) and come up with four separate templates, all hot enough to feed a whole album. “It’s Hot” is just a lonely gospel hand clap, lots of negative space, and a cantering bass twink. Think “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa,” murdah murdah style. “Big Pimpin’ ” rolls out bhangra flutes and taxicab strings on pillow wheels, which suits cold fish Jay-Z and hot-stepping UGK just fine. (Dirty South wins that one.) “Come and Get Me” begins with a fuzzy funk intro, plenty fine on its own, only to slide into a haunted-house breakdown full of echoes and squeals. Then the song comes to a full stop and, BOOM!, a whole new synth stomp enters, which I won’t itemize. The hook itself finally appears, and there’s some rapping and stuff. Two songs in one—the trend starts here.
The real wig-mover, though, is “Snoopy Track.” The hi-hats move like angry brooms through your ears, but your hard drive gets wiped by the giant-sandworm borborygmus that some will feebly describe as the “synth bass line.” Add a Darth Vader hook by Juvenile and voilà, it’s scarier than Entombed and more swinging than Ray Brown, alive but right-angled enough to make electronica sound like the middlebrow Muzak it too often is. I pray this is released as a single.
Hip-hop has largely given Tim the cold shoulder, and I can’t always blame those lil’ backpackers: When Jay-Z’s not paying, his hip-hop productions are patchy. Nas’s “You Owe Me” is less sonically gerrymandered than the r&b-meets-grime disaster of “You Won’t See Me Tonight,” but exemplifies Tim’s taste in concepts (i.e., none). Nas, the charming dog, manages to equate slavery reparations with ass owed to him by one of those darn skeezers. The Lox’s “Ryde or Dye Chick/Bitch” is an up-to-snuff cha cha but suffers from the same what-a-completely-fascinating-subject problem. Even paired with a great MC like Mad Skillz on the new single “Together” (Rawkus), Tim is just perfunctory. No—there’s something special about Tim and Mr. Dr. Jigga. Just put on “Paper Chase” and “Jigga What, Jigga Who” from Vol. 2 again—that’s some nasty Logan’s Run shit.
Timothy Mosley grew up on sampling, not piano lessons. That freedom, or lack of traditional grounding, allowed him to create a sound that is now replicating across the pop landscape. He broke open the vaults, made anything fair game for r&b and, by osmosis, pop. Tim’s work is done, in large part. As he said to me in a 1998 interview, “I think of all those people on the radio as part of my production team.” How big of you, I thought at the time. But now? He’s the meme, no doubt.