MAGIC FORMULA: What else is there to hear in “Why I Are” besides a rich man telling poor people it’s okay to be poor?
Let’s not forget that megaproducer Timbaland takes his name from a brand of construction boots. The guy builds songs. Ten massive 2006 pop tracks — including Hot 100 toppers Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous Girl” and Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” and “My Love” — he can claim responsibility for, to say nothing of a decade’s worth of radio-altering Number One Song productions for everyone from Missy Elliott to Jay-Z to Aaliyah. Just as Miles Davis reminded jazz that leaving the right notes out was as important as putting the right ones in, Timbaland’s sense of space in hip-hop smacked the breakcentric genre upside the head. He popped snares, exploded bottoms, and left a universe between the two frequencies, working in the polyrhythms and tug-and-pull and melodic structures and instrumentation of Eastern and East Asian musical traditions without seeming gimmicky. Timbaland makes a perfectly fine hip-hop producer like his nemesis Scott Storch sound like “just a piano man,” so much do Tim’s songs arrive, bristling with an energy that demands so much more from the artist than a paycheck. He’s unafraid of the past and unafraid of melody — both major hang-ups for present-day minimalist producers. He knows that there is no lost chord, that all Number One Songs are made up of bits and pieces of other Number One Songs. He’s exacting and precise, extremely aware of how, what, and why good pop music works, and as far as I can tell he’s not going anywhere — his sound banks maybe, but his truly modern approach never.
And now, somehow, I have to explain to you why Timbaland’s new Shock Value (Interscope) — an album that proceeds pretty near as described above — is truly awful, maybe even vile. I have to explain how this sleek-sounding, hour-long, star-studded folder of leaked MP3s has reawakened all my deepest insecurities about this business of pop music and writing about it. I have to explain how a guy who has his magic formulas, who has birthed some of this decade’s most transfixing stretches of sound, has made an album not of magically formulated songs but of magic formulas. How that strikes me as contempt for both his art (i.e., music) and his audience (i.e., yours truly). How there’s a difference between pop music in 2007 and “the sound of pop music in 2007.” And how Shock Value is squarely the latter.
To an extent, Timbaland’s just giving us what we want. The rolling synth-organ riff in “Release,” even the very rhythms with which he delivers the verses, tread so closely to Justin’s “SexyBack” that it’s hard not to think of this as a case of “ain’t broke/don’t fix it” — at worst something of a copyright-office prank with self-infringement as the punch line. 50 Cent and his weed carrier Tony Yayo, a man who wears bucket hats and gets arrested for beating up 14-year-olds, guest on “Come & Get Me,” a song that has the same piano rolls and sing-song chorus that every successful G-Unit song has had (i.e., the ones that “worked”). For “Way I Are” Timbaland rejiggers what sounds like the electro-synth hook from Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It,” doing so in a way that’s freakishly similar to Rihanna’s chart-topping, “Tainted Love”–sampling “S.O.S.”; mouth clicks and start-stop spaceship synths on “Miscommunication” bear an uncanny resemblance to those of the Neptunes’ “Drop It like It’s Hot.” Sensing a trend? Opener “Oh Timbaland” has what sounds like the same exact stuttering hi-hat track from “Nigga What, Nigga Who,” a success Timbaland did for Jay-Z eight years ago, and if you listen close enough you’ll hear the synth flutter of “My Love” rear its head every bar or so. Right? The extent to which all this is Timbaland hedging his bets, or knowing what works, or “knowing what works,” is difficult to make out — which has me wondering whether my own cynicisms aren’t just the tiniest bit tipped off by Tim’s.
Believe it or not, I don’t think I’m the kind of asshole music writer who plays the influence or “name the sample” game with a song and then moves on to the next. You can find these people all over the Internet, and they well might be destroying said Internet as we speak. I’m listening for that nugget of inexplicability, that Lauryn Hillish “thing” an artist does, which I then persuade editors to pay me to try and explicate, or reverberate, or refract, or simply describe. I don’t think being an asshole comes into play at all for me. Maybe I’m wrong.