Mixing Desk

Superstar Producers

Five albums that showcase their skills.

Rubin and Shakira: an unlikely combo 
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Rubin and Shakira: an unlikely combo

Shakira Fijación Oral Volumen 1 (Epic) Click here to listen to “La Tortura.”

Rick Rubin has come a long way since 1984, when he co-founded Def Jam records in an NYU dorm and helped bring hip-hop into the major leagues. Today, he’s stationed in an old Laurel Canyon mansion, and his résumé resembles an iPod Shuffle: Working with Jay-Z, Slayer, and Johnny Cash, he’s made wildly different songs crackle, roar, and smolder. Shakira, the Colombian pop star whose new Spanish-language album Rubin executive-produced, might be his unlikeliest client yet. Or not: She, too, has dodged easy categorization. Her new single, “La Tortura,” sets accordions over spiky reggaeton drums. It’s a nasty breakup duet with the Spanish rasper * Alejandro Sanz, but even after you’ve translated the lyrics, it’s deliciously unclear who’s torturing whom: Sanz cheated, but Shakira sends him packing with a string of barbed kiss-offs. “Take that bone to some other dog,” she sings. “And let’s say goodbye.”

Pharrell Williams (left) saves the day
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Pharrell Williams saves the day

Missy Elliott The Cookbook (Atlantic) Click here to listen to “On and On.”

Missy Elliott’s sixth album presents a breakup of a different kind. Since her 1997 debut, this wildly inventive Virginia Beach rapper-singer has counted on the producer Timbaland to be her partner in brilliant unpredictability. Here, Timbaland supplies only two beats, leaving Elliott to produce and parcel out the rest. The album is a mixed bag: An abundance of devotional ballads and slow jams makes you wonder how a rapper so insistently idiosyncratic could make R&B so bland. One moment burns through: “On and On,” a boastful track produced by Virginia’s other resident rap genius, Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes. Williams recognizes that if you try to fill Timbaland’s shoes, you’d better bring the weirdness—he constructs an electronic beat full of blank spaces and high-pitched synths that dart and squiggle through them, like fish in some futuristic aquarium.

Kelly Clarkson
Breakaway (RCA) Click here to listen to “Since U Been Gone”

In 2002, a 20-year-old Texas girl trilled her way past 9,999 crooners, note-flubbers, and Simon Cowell to become the first American Idol. Her double-platinum debut, Thankful, was heavy on the sort of treacle and melodrama native to Disney soundtracks, but “Since U Been Gone,” the lead single here, makes an unexpected stab at rock. Celebrating a blasé boyfriend’s departure, Clarkson delivers her verses in a husky, unadorned voice and then explodes into an ecstatic chorus that’s best experienced while jumping on your bed and miming a microphone (seriously, try it). The chugging guitar riff wouldn’t sound out of place on an indie-rock record—indeed, the breakdown sounds as though it were cribbed straight from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ garage-rock power ballad, “Maps.” The producer is Max Martin, the teen-pop maestro behind “… Baby One More Time” and “I Want It That Way.” Apparently, Clarkson isn’t the only artist redefining herself here.

West: Keepin' it real.
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West: Keepin’ it real

Kanye West Late Registration (Roc-a-Fella) Click here to listen to “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.”

Boasting a wardrobe heavy on khakis and cardigans, Kanye West emerged last year with an unusual take on hip-hop’s first commandment: “Keep it real.” For the Chicago producer-turned-MC, “realness” had less to do with hardscrabble youth and semiautomatic weapons than shopping at Sam’s Club and middle-class fantasies about owning a nice car someday. However, West likes to complicate his Everyman sense of decency and principle by acknowledging the lures of bling hedonism. This tension runs through “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” his electro-tinged, Shirley Bassey-sampling new single. The title nods at human rights atrocities in Africa, but the lyrics simply toast West’s stardom. Thankfully, he’s a likable braggart and writes some gleefully absurd punchlines: “If you strip and named Porsche and you get tips from many men/ Then your fat friend, her nickname is Minivan.” Whether he’ll donate his own jewelry to Médecins Sans Frontières remains to be seen.

Eno ages gracefully
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Eno ages gracefully

Brian Eno
Another Day on Earth
(Hannibal) Click here to listen to “Just Another Day.”

Let any pair of size-42 leather pants stand as evidence: Rock icons are especially adept at aging gracelessly. Brian Eno, who rose to prominence as the boa-modeling, liberally rouged keyboardist for ‘70s glam band Roxy Music, is an exception. He’s only grown classier with age. In 1974, he went solo, celebrating pop structures while dismantling them; by 1987, he’d invented “ambient” music, delved into its experimental fringes, and become a world-class producer as comfortable with Talking Heads’ jittery punk as with U2’s stadium-sized majesty. His latest album—an event for Enophiles, since it features his vocals—is so mellow you might mistake it for toothless (iTunes automatically labels it as “New Age,” which is not altogether inappropriate). Over the synthesized hums and softly treading backbeat of “Just Another Day,” Eno zooms out to a galactically wide angle and reduces worldly affairs—war, love, heartbreak, fill in the blank—into one resonant bromide: “It’s just another day on earth.”

* Correction, June 13, 2005: Due to an error introduced in editing, the article originally referred to Alejandro Sanz as a rapper. He is not. Click here to return to corrected sentence.