Timbaland spent last winter boring people. The veteran hip-hop producer, 36, was on tour with Justin Timberlake, and for 20 minutes each night, he’d interrupt Timberlake’s slinky flirtations and boneless undulations by installing himself behind a console and orchestrating a medley of his productions. The music wasn’t boring—far from it. Timbaland himself was a drag: hunching his shoulders, moving his limbs randomly, hoping the montage of horror movie clips projected behind him would supply the personality he couldn’t. Plunking Timbaland into the middle of Timberlake’s calibrated set was like picking an NBA fan from the stands at halftime and asking him to sink a basket from half-court: Timbaland’s ideas about sound may be genius, but as an entertainer, he’s still an amateur.
Timbaland’s gawky performance wouldn’t be a problem were it not for his stadium-size ambitions. Since his 1998 solo album, he’s made it clear that he’s not content to stay behind the mixing board—the place where he’s produced some of the most dazzlingly strange hits to ever skitter up the charts. Now, with his second solo album, Shock Value, on which he raps and produces across several genres, Timbaland has unveiled a plan to ascend to what he calls “world-masses music.” He doesn’t want to be a mere producer or rapper anymore. He wants to be a unifier.
In 2004, after a stunningly innovative run, Timbaland, aka Tim Mosley, decided he’d hit a creative ceiling—or, less generously, that hip-hop had. As creative crises go, it was a cocky one, but enough to temporarily derail him. Like his pal Jay-Z, he took a step away from hip-hop, shedding 150 pounds on Miami’s professional bodybuilding circuit and selling beats here and there. Muscle Milk isn’t free, after all.
By 2006, his ennui had grown into something more productive—restlessness—and Timbaland, rebranding himself a pop producer, helmed two exceptionally good albums, Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds and Nelly Furtado’s Loose. Three songs he produced—Furtado’s “Promiscuous” and Timberlake’s “My Love” and “SexyBack”—reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, staying put for several weeks. It was the most commercially successful year of his career. But for Timbaland, this was only the start of something bigger. One need look no further than Shock Value’s motley guest list to see the scope of Timbaland’s jukebox-bursting aspirations: Furtado and Timberlake make cameos, as do 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, Missy Elliott, Fall Out Boy, the Hives, and Elton John.
The result, though, is disappointing. Despite a career spent coddling and coaxing some of rap’s finest talents, Timbaland is no less clumsy a rapper today than he was in 1997—his cadences are leaden, his wordplay flat—and he raps on nearly every song here. He hasn’t found a way to lend his baritone much character, so he often opts for cartoonish yelps and off-key singsongs that suck the air out of his songs. With one or two exceptions, his hip-hop production is inexplicably slack, and his genre experiments offer proof that even a master like Timbaland can’t outmaneuver the horrors of rap-rock. What was so bad about being the most brilliant hip-hop producer of all time, anyway?
It makes some sense that Timbaland wants to outgrow hip-hop, because he’s always been a weird fit. In the late ‘90s he emerged from Virginia Beach, and these off-the-grid origins seem to have given him room to maneuver. Faced with hip-hop’s fierce provincialism, he didn’t mimic ascendant styles. Instead, he rewrote the rule book, bottom-up, according to his own alien physics. His drums hit in unexpected places. He forced vocalists to contort themselves into strange new positions. And he replaced old funk and soul samples—hip-hop’s building blocks—with synthesizers. He symbolically cut short rap production’s long conversation with history and ushered in its forward-facing space age.
No song illustrates Timbaland’s coup better than Missy Elliott’s 1997 single, “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).” His beat is an ill-proportioned mutant, jerking unexpectedly, gaping with holes—and yet it coalesces into a hypnotic groove. Ten years ago, the song sounded, thrillingly, like hip-hop learning to walk all over again. The video, directed by Hype Williams, was an ingenious analogue: Elliott wore an inflated garbage bag so that her body swelled and crumpled as she tried to move in time with the music.
Staggering cadences were Timbaland’s first sonic signature, and he used them to arresting effect in 1998 on Jay-Z’s “Nigga What, Nigga Who” and Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” The former is a marvel of sleek syncopation: To hear Jay-Z jab at Timbaland’s moth-wing twitches is to hear two masters duet. “Are You That Somebody?” showcased Timbaland’s gift for turning unlikely sounds into irresistible hooks—beneath Aaliyah’s predatory come-ons, he looped a baby’s coo.
Timbaland’s vertiginous beats caught on quickly. The most prominent example of his early influence came in 1999, when Destiny’s Child aped his herky-jerky sonics on the eight-times platinum The Writing’s on the Wall. That his ideas translated so fluidly between rap and R&B indicates his versatility as well as his good timing. In the 1990s, R&B and hip-hop were growing ever closer to each other, as rappers discovered that an R&B hook could help them reach wider audiences, and singers discovered that a brash 16-bar verse could juice up their songs. This trend preceded Timbaland, but he navigated between the two genres like no one before him—it’s fitting that Elliott, his first muse, splits her time between rapping and singing.
Timbaland was not alone in Virginia. He had the Neptunes, the production duo that palled around with him in high school and who consistently represent his most exciting competition. But while the Neptunes sometimes seem like they are repeating a successful formula, Timbaland’s beats frequently sound like great leaps forward.
Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On,” from 2001, was one such leap. As she put it to me recently, “When me and Tim get together, we go to Saturn.” Inspired by the Punjabi dance music known as bhangra, the song’s irregular patchwork of tablas and tumbis inspired a wave of Eastern-scaled exoticism in pop that hasn’t waned. It wasn’t the first Timbaland track to travel abroad (Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’ ” (1999) samples Egyptian pop star Abdel Halim Hafez), and it wasn’t the last (there’s something of the snake charmer’s flute to the nagging melody that propels Furtado’s “Promiscuous“), but with a formalist like Timbaland, this isn’t evidence of a multicultural impulse so much as the desire to present audiences with unfamiliar sounds, be they from an oud, sitar, or synthesizer. In 2003, he told the New YorkTimes, “I don’t really try to figure out the difference between what y’all call bhangra or ragas or whatever.”
Shock Value includes some of Timbaland’s most unfamiliar sounds yet (Exhibit A, the white-boy wail of Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump) and represents the first time he’s had difficulty assimilating them. For a producer devoted to subverting the hip-hop status quo, sub-Coldplay balladeers One Republic and sub-Interpol goths She Wants Revenge are perplexing choices for featured spots. And the A-list rap and pop contingent is squandered—Timberlake appears three times and barely sings, Elton John is kept to a smattering of piano flourishes on the closing song, and a much ballyhooed Jay-Z collaboration never materializes. Perhaps Timbaland couldn’t figure out how to effectively corral such a diverse flock, or perhaps their busy schedules afforded him only so much time, but Shock Value is a failure.
The album’s highlight comes toward the end of “Bounce,” when Timbaland’s beat—a chittering, oozing wonder—drops away, and Missy Elliott bursts into the mix with a nonsense rap about Britney Spears’ undergarments. You can almost imagine that she and Timbaland are two young upstarts again, trying to out-crazy each other in some Virginia Beach apartment.