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If the omnipresent and apparently inseparable tandem of Justin Timberlake and Timbaland are working on the new albums from Duran Duran and Madonna, does that make them the new Nile Rogers? And if TimbaLake is the new Nile Rogers, is 50 Cent the new David Bowie? Is Rihanna the new Diana Ross? Is Timberlake himself the new Sister Sledge? I’m starting to scare myself. A year ago, I would’ve been crazy amped at the idea that Timberlake and Timbaland would become the new go-to producers for megabudget pop-music deities. FutureSex/LoveSounds remains one of my favorite albums of the last couple of years, an album-long Big Statement as disarmingly emo as it is ambitiously sleek. Timberlake also showed up on half of the good songs on Timbaland’s Shock Value. And we shouldn’t forget that the two of them were responsible for “Cry Me a River,” one of the defining pop masterpieces of the young century. But I’m not sure what to make of the recent brand-dilution. The pair have been turning up everywhere lately, but none of the stuff they’ve released since Shock Value has made any real impression at all. “Ayo Technology” is a pretty good song by recent 50 Cent standards, but that’s saying absolutely nothing, and the song is a total mess compared to any of the Timbaland tracks on FutureSex. None of the songs that the team did for the Rihanna album particularly stands out, and I’m not holding out a whole lot of hope for their work on the new Madonna either. But back when they announced that they were working with Duran Duran, the match really sounded like it might work. If the two leaked tracks from the upcoming Duran Duran album are any indication, it’s just not happening.
These days, Duran Duran gets remembered as the most successful of the nu-ro haircut-bands, and that characterization makes sense, but it doesn’t account for the surprising bite that a lot of their early singles carry. “Planet Earth” and “Girls on Film” and “The Reflex” all made use of legitimately nasty Eurodisco beats and seriously vicious, unapologetically sleazy hooks, and those songs have aged remarkably well. The band was smart enough to recruit Nile Rogers for their first comeback-attempt in 1986, but it’s worth noting that the stuff they recorded before hiring him was more often than not funkier than the stuff they did with him. These days, the band is actually in a spot somewhat similar to where they were in 1986. Their original lineup reunited a few years ago, but since then they’ve been cranking out slick but uninspired lounge-pop, the sort of stuff that tries a bit too hard to sound stylish. They needed to tweak a few things, and that’s what they’ve done by bringing in Timbaland and Timberlake. So it’s weird to hear that “Nite Runner” and “Falling Down,” the two leaked collaborations with those two, only sound like Duran Duran to the extent that old Duran Duran was one precedent for FutureSex. “Nite Runner,” the Timbaland track, sounds like a half-finished demo for that album’s title track, and Simon Le Bon’s clipped delivery could be a Timberlake backup vocal. Timberlake actually cowrote and produced “Falling Down” without Timbaland’s help, but you can tell he’s been taking notes in the studio, since the song has all of Timbaland’s gleaming synth-textures but none of his masterly use of empty space. It’s a passable late-career power-ballad for Duran Duran, but the people involved should’ve been able to put together something more than that.
I’m guessing that Timbaland and Timberlake have just been riding the success of FutureSex while they still can, selling off their outtakes to the highest bidders. When they finally get around to releasing another album, it hopefully won’t sound this tossed off. Timbaland has said that Timberlake wants the next one to sound like the Rapture, which is certainly a good sign. Timberlake still put on my favorite live show of the year, and I still can’t wait to see his HBO live special next week. Still, it’s disheartening to see the two of them flooding the market with so much lazy bullshit, especially just as that homemade Brief History of Timbaland box-set has been reminding me of just how easily that guy used to churn out mind-bending tracks. It’s a shame Duran Duran didn’t think to hire him a year or ten ago.