Once upon a time, it was a great creative partnership. Jay-Z and Timbaland were titans of their respective fields years before they met each other, but they still found ways to immediately elevate each other. “Paper Chase” and “Jigga What, Jigga Who,” which I’m pretty sure were the first Jay/Tim collaborations, came out in the fall of 1998 on Jay’s Hard Knock Life album, and at least one of those tracks sounded different from anything either of them had done up until then. Jay had spent most of his time rapping on glossy, cinematic Premier/Ski boom-bap, viciously thumping Swizz-type synth-rap, and uber-slick jiggy-era stuff. Tim was mostly a spacey R&B producer, doing otherworldly slow-jams for Aaliyah and Ginuwine and sonar-ping cartoon-funk for Missy Elliott and for himself and Magoo. “Paper Chase” is a fine track, with Jay and Foxy Brown authoritatively navigating the beat’s awkward lurch, but it isn’t ultimately all that different from the Trackmasters-type stuff Jay was already doing. But “Jigga What, Jigga Who” is total next-level shit, and it still stands as one of the finest moments for both Jay and Tim. Tim’s beat was like an irregular heartbeat, alternating quick clusters of rapid-fire hi-hats with huge silent spaces and laying gorgeously airy strings over everything. And Jay’s delivery hit another gear. He turned his voice into a percussion instrument in ways he hadn’t ever done, finding connections between Southern bounce-rap and the quick-tongue Das-EFX stuff of his pre-Reasonable Doubt past. A few years ago, I heard Jason King give an EMP paper where he went into crazy depth about the song’s use of space, comparing it to feng shui. His entire paper wasn’t about just this one song, but it could’ve been.
After that, Jay did a number of tracks with Timbaland over the years; I count sixteen collaborations, though I could well be forgetting a couple. Not all of them were pure gold; Jay was a bit lazy on “Hola Hovito” and on his guest appearances for Missy and for Ms. Jade, and of those tracks, only “One Minute Man” really stands as one of Tim’s most memorable. More often, though, they pushed each other in powerful and unique ways. Tim found in Jay a superstar client willing to indulge some of his weirdest tendencies, and Jay found a in Tim a producer able to sound simultaneously pop and hard, the tightrope line Jay spent years walking. Jay and Tim never overwhelmed each other the way they often overwhelmed their other collaborators. On Tim’s beats, Jay sounded titanic and regal, and the two of them veered all over the stylistic map together: the North African cruise-ship exoticism of “Big Pimpin’,” the off-kilter singsong vocoder burps of “Hey Papi,” the fucking amazing monster bass-rumble of “Snoopy Track.” Part of the reason Jay was able to dominate the last decade was his understanding and embrace of Southern rap (not too many other New York rappers were seeking out UGK guest appearances in 1999), and he may have picked some of that up from Tim. Suffice to say they were good for each other. But the two of them eventually grew away from each other, and the collaborations tapered off. Tim got tired of rap, largely pricing himself out of the genre so he could concentrate on making future-pop with Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake and Bjork. Jay retired and then unretired, coming back as an adult-contempo executive rapper who sadly shook his head at his younger counterparts. They were both moving away from the huge, audacious club-rap that had been their common ground. Jay was supposed to show up on Tim’s Shock Value, but apparently he finished his song too late for it to make the album’s deadline, and Tim told Entertainment Weekly that he was disappointed in Jay. It seemed like the drawn-out end of something great.
And that’s what makes “Laff At Em,” the new Timbaland/Jay/Timberlake song that leaked yesterday, so exciting. “Laff At Em” isn’t a particularly good song. It’s billed as a remix to “Give It to Me,” but it has none of that song’s casual snarl. Tim piles on the calliope bloops and obnoxious whistle noises with none of his usual sense for space, and his rapping gets more irritating all the time. Tim’s verses used to be clumsy but relatively quick and effective. He knew that he wasn’t much of a rapper, so he’d bury his mutter in the mix, feeding it through so many filters that it sounded like he was rapping over a bad phone connection. He was content to generally deflect most of the attention onto whoever else was on the song. But Shock Value, which is only a couple of weeks old but which sounds shittier every time I hear it, was probably the moment where Tim decided that he was good enough to be a real rapper, which isn’t what I’d call a step in the right direction. It’s sort of like how Pharrell’s falsetto coo was a lot of fun back when it was totally gleefully amateurish, cracking all the time and valiantly failing to hit high notes; he was like a shower-singer who somehow found himself on actual pop songs. But that voice got totally unbearable circa “Frontin'” when Pharrell started taking voice lessons or whatever and decided he was Usher. Tim’s verse on “Laff At Em” has that same sort of unearned arrogance; he says a lot of absolute nonsense and sounds way too confident doing it. And Tim’s also starting to use Timberlake as a hood-ornament and nothing more. As on two of Timberlake’s three Shock Value appearances, Tim doesn’t even leave him the space to actually sing; he’s just there for star-power and nothing more. “Laff At Em” isn’t even as good as a lot of what made it onto Shock Value, but it does come alive when Jay’s voice is there, and I’m pretty fucking amped about that.
A huge part of my problem with Kingdom Come was Jay’s delivery. His beats were slow and frilly, and so he let himself mostly ignore them, muttering slowly and never letting his voice take on the hard musical snap it used to have. Jay doesn’t say a whole lot on “Laff At Em,” and none of his lyrics are really worth quoting. But purely in terms of the actual vocal, it’s his best performance since the “Diamonds of Sierra Leone Remix” or maybe the “Drop It Like It’s Hot” remix. He pushes his voice into the track’s spaces and eddies, filling the empty spaces with a sort of sly swagger. For the first time in a while, he’s clearly enjoying the actual process of making music. He spent all of Kingdom Come addressing his own mythic persona and figuring out where he belonged in rap’s landscape, but hardly anything he did really worked outside the context of that persona. His verse on “Laff At Em” would sound pretty incredible even if I’d never heard him before, and that’s exciting. Maybe someone should lock Jay and Tim in a studio for a little while; maybe they’ll start bringing the best out of each other again.
Unrelated: I won’t be writing a new Status entry tomorrow. I’m going to a funeral. You’ll manage.