Timbaland shrewdly hides that pack of franks out the back of his neck
Simon Reynolds, on his blog, a month ago: “It gets boring, doesn’t it, acclaiming Timbaland’s genius for the tenth year in a row.” Timbaland may or may not be the type to read music blogs (he loves M.I.A., after all), but even if he didn’t read that particular Blissblog entry, Shock Value, his new just-leaked solo album, feels like an hour-long attempt to prove Reynolds right. I understood what Reynolds was saying when he wrote it, but I didn’t agree. It’s easy to figure out the broad strokes of Tim’s ten-year assault on pop radio, how he brought a spacey, textured sense of dynamics and a rave-informed web of futuristic sonics to pop music, dragging it kicking and screaming into fascinating places. That’s what people have been writing about him ever since Ginuwine’s “Pony,” and that’s what they’ll keep writing about him until he finally farts off into obsolescence or dies of a steroid-triggered heart attack. At this point, though, it’s more interesting and rewarding to ponder the ways he’s managed to maintain his importance to pop, how he’s managed to draw out latent qualities in nearly all of his clients and added new shades to his monolithic stutter-bap in the process. Tim is one of pop music’s great collaborators, and he’s helped along the careers of others by figuring out where his aesthetics intersected with theirs. He made bloopy cartoon-funk for Missy Elliott and Touretically swoony synth-disco for Justin Timberlake and elegantly cosmopolitan electro for Jay-Z because he knew what would work for all three. He them and helped them define or redefine their own sensibilities. But his own sensibilities are basically too messy and undefined to work for an entire album. Tim has made plenty of full-length masterworks, but he’s only pulled it off when he had collaborators like Missy or Justin or Bubba Sparxxx, all of whom had their own ideas and forceful personalities, none of whom were pawns or blank slates. When Tim isn’t forced to work through somebody else’s ideas, he’s often lost at sea. Tim’s Bio and Ms. Jade’s Girl Interrupted and the three albums he made with Magoo all have great moments, but none of them hold together as albums because none of them had any sense of direction. And that’s also the problem with Shock Value. The album feels like a highlight reel of Tim’s decade-old production tricks: stuttery drums, twinkling synths, skittery beatbox noises, spaceship bass-hums. Judging by the million interviews Tim gave when he was making the album, he spent a lot of time managing its considerable list of guests and not a lot of time writing memorable songs. He also insists on singing or rapping or talking all over every song, which can only be considered a disastrous decision even if you like his goofy-ass rapping, which I do. And Shock Value is still, as far as I’m concerned, a pretty good listen. Figure that one out.
Shock Value comes organized into three parts: epically swollen club-bangers, snoozy poppy R&B tracks, and confused stabs at alt-rock. Part of the problem is that Tim doesn’t seem to have any ability to edit out his bad ideas or to focus on his greatest strengths. A great Timbaland solo album would be pretty much entirely club-bangers, and Fall Out Boy would definitely not appear on it. But every song in that opening club-banger segment is something to behold, even if he does rap on all of them. “Give It To Me,” the song that kick-started the best terrible rap beef ever, has the nagging swagger of a fourth-grade bully, and nearly every element of the track works as a hook. “Release” is a “SexyBack”-style synth-vamp where Tim makes the irresistibly arrogant move of mixing his own voice louder than Justin Timberlake’s. “Way I Are” is pretty much Timbaland’s take on trance-rap, and it makes a better case for that nascent subgenre than anything I’ve yet heard. “Bounce” has a verse from Dr. Dre, which makes it something of a summit-meeting of brilliant producers who can’t rap for shit but still insist on doing it all the time (Dre: “Ain’t this money handsome? / Ain’t that a panty anthem?”). “Come & Get Me” throws huge, rolling pianos and panting choirs under 50 Cent and a shockingly tolerable Tony Yayo, who contributes maybe five good punchlines and generally takes a quick break from his long crusade to become rap’s most loathsome figure. There’s a similar immediacy to “Throw It On Me,” Tim’s track with the Hives, which feeds the band’s tired garage-rock whoop through about ten different filters and somehow turns it into techno, kicking off the rock segment with sly gusto. “One & Only” pulls the same trick with Fall Out Boy’s histrionics; it’s not great, but it’s a hell of a lot better than anything on the last Fall Out Boy album. One Republic’s “Apologize” is the Coldplay piano-ballad Tim has apparently always wanted to make, and it’s a pretty enough dry run for the actual Coldplay tracks he’s apparently about to produce. Even the deathlessly boring R&B segment still has some gorgeous sounds: inconsolable sighs used as percussion, new-wave glimmer-synths, cascading vocal hiccups. Shock Value might not even come close to cohering as an album, but it still boasts a dizzying array of weird and evocative sounds, and if that’s all I can get I’ll take it. After all, that’s what people like about Radiohead, right?
Shock Value might not be an abject failure, but it’s still a missed opportunity, and it’ll be fun to play fantasy baseball and imagine what album might’ve happened if Tim hadn’t indulged some of his dumbest instincts. Tim is, for instance, maybe the most prominent victim of the unfortunate trend of rap musicians who want to stop making rap. If you’d spent a decade surrounded by chumps like Sebastian and D.O.E., maybe you’d be sick of rap, too. In any case, I’d be happier if Tim had enlisted titans like T.I. and Lil Wayne rather than big-name jokers like 50 Cent and loyal underlings like Magoo for the oddly perfunctory rap parts of the album. The album’s also missing reported collaborators like Bjork and M.I.A.; the former apparently has saved all her Tim collaborations for her own forthcoming album, and the latter has been consigned to import-bonus-track hell. If Tim had to indulge his rock jones, it’s a shame he didn’t make that Rapture track he considered a few years back. Still, you go to war with the Timbaland solo album you have, not the Timbaland solo album you might want. Those Bjork and M.I.A. tracks will see daylight eventually, and I can’t wait. And Shock Value hit the internet right around the time Tim announced that Justin Timberlake wants his next album to sound like the Rapture, some of the best news I’ve heard in months. This fascinating article previews a track he’ll have on the next T.I. album and makes it sound pretty amazing. Tim’s space-pop visions may not make sense when he tries to shoehorn them into album form, but they still make for one of the most beguiling bodies of work in popular music when they gradually seep out into the world through the work he does for other artists and the influence he wields over other producers. My hero-worship can definitely withstand one more pretty-good solo album that doesn’t peel my face off the way I hoped it would. Maybe next time he’ll even pull off something better.