Yup, still good
So I didn’t go to the Scream Tour last night, even though I had tickets waiting for me at will call. I’d just done a reading for Marooned at the Housing Works bookstore, a totally nerve-racking experience since I never talk in front of people, and I had friends in from out of town. But so I blew it. During T.I.’s set, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and 50 Cent all shared the stage at the same time (and Diddy and Swizz Beatz, but who cares). This was the largest collective display of rap unity and starpower since, um, that one night at that club in Vegas during All-Star weekend. The Scream Tour, even in its most recent incarnation with an actual credible rapper headlining, is basically a show for 13-year-old girls, so I felt safe assuming that nothing as huge at this would happen. But the thing about transcendent NY rap moments is that you never know exactly when they’ll happen and you shouldn’t miss a chance to catch them whenever those opportunities arise. The fact that the moment actually happened is probably more important than what the real-time experience would’ve been like, but I’m still pretty severely bummed about this shit today. One of the very few things that could make me feel better on a day like this is a free five-CD box-set of Timbaland productions, but thankfully one of those exists, and it’s right here.
The Fly Life‘s A Brief Introduction to Timbaland Beats is, I think, the sort of thing Al Gore had in mind when he invented the internet. It’s great, and one of the great things about it is that it isn’t brief at all. 5 CDs is a whole lot of music (though nowhere near enough to cover more than a fraction of Tim’s huge catalog), and there’s stuff in here that I’ve never heard before. I had no idea, for instance, that Tim had ever sold beats to Mack 10 or Fat Joe or N.O.R.E., or that he’d remixed Floetry or Slum Village. Some of the songs here are straight-up unreleased; Tim’s remix of Trey Songz’ “Wonder Woman,” for instance, includes Game clumsily reciting his verse from “Wouldn’t Get Far” over Tim’s drums; I sort of wish that verse had stayed on a throwaway remix. But then, one of the really interesting things about the mix is that when all these tracks are blurred together, the low-profile album-tracks tend to sound just as good as the big singles. The set manages to encompass pretty much all of Tim’s career. It’s a little weaker on post-2003 material, but that’s to be expected, since Tim’s output has dropped significantly and since he’s been especially slow on churning out the rap and R&B bangers that make up pretty much all of this set. The five CDs only include two songs from Justin Timberlake and one from Nelly Furtado, but there’s an absolute wealth of Missy Elliott album-tracks here (“Izzy Izzy Ahh”! “Lick Shots”! “Slide”!). The set skips a few of my favorite Tim tracks; there’s no “One Minute Man,” No “Snoopy Track,” No “Oops (Oh My).” And it avoids some of Tim’s big zeitgeist-grabbing moments: “Get Ur Freak On,” “Big Pimpin’,” “Headsprung.” The Fly Life, perhaps wisely, completely excludes Tim’s dabbles into hipster territory: Beck, Bjork, M.I.A. Even without any of that stuff, though, the wealth of material here is just staggering. It’s been a long time since I’ve even thought about Shawnna’s “Shake That Shit” or Lil Kim’s “The Jump Off” or Fabolous’s “Right Now and Later On,” but here they are in all their glory, their jittery power undiminished by time. So is Missy’s “Busa Ryme,” which I think is the only time Eminem has ever rapped over a Timbaland beat, and it’s a monster; he’s in his post-Slim Shady LP evilly funny maniacal misanthrope phase, and his rabid syllable spray sounds totally devastating when the space-funk beat morphs into a serious Terminator-soundtrack synth-monster halfway through. I sort’ve wish Tim had developed as close a bond with Em as he did with Jay-Z, since Em is the only other rap titan who seemed to know exactly what he was doing on these tracks. One of the many striking things about A Brief History is hearing how clumsy and out-of-place big stars like Nas and Snoop Dogg tend to sound on these tracks. B-listers like Fabolous and Jadakiss and Petey Pablo usually do a whole lot better, maybe because they’re more content to let the beat drive the song.
A Brief History is sequenced for flow, not chronology, but it’s still pretty amazing how fully-formed Tim’s aesthetic was when he first began making his name. If anything, Tim’s grown more musically conservative over the years. His newer stuff still crackles with ideas, but the oldest songs are often the weirdest. The talkbox bassline of Ginuwine’s “Pony” is just as unfathomable as ever eleven years later, and it still destroys me. I can’t remember who reviewed Missy’s Supa Dupa Fly for Spin, but I remember that person writing that the then-popular term trip-hop applied a whole lot better to something like Aaliyah’s “One in a Million” than it did to Morcheeba or the Sneaker Pimps or whoever. And Tim was throwing self-conscious weirdness all over major-label rap tracks from the very beginning; consider the sampled horse whinnies and Bjork strings of his remix of Missy’s “Hit Em Wit Da Hee.” Early on, critics heard big techno and jungle influences in Tim’s work, influences that may or may not have been there alongside Miami bass and dancehall and electro and Chicago house and sparse early-80s boom-bap. Later on, bhagra and trance and weird Egyptian music would creep in. But nearly every one of the ninety-five songs and one skit on A Brief History are unmistakably Tim’s. Tim tracks make you feel like you’re being suspended in space and pulled in a million directions at once; I can’t think of another producer who has made pop music this unsettling. I’d never heard Missy’s “Big Spender” before today, and I actually felt physically ill (in a good way) hearing how the song completely distorts and mutates is Broadway source-material, stretching and bending it into something that shouldn’t have made sense but somehow did. And Tim did this for a bonus track on Tweet’s Southern Hummingbird. The mix is illegal as all hell, and I hope I’m not exposing the Fly Life too much by enthusing about the set here, but holy shit, grab it before it disappears. You owe it to yourself, especially if you missed Scream last night.