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Man, talk about a prophet ignored in his own nation. A colleague recently interviewed British trip-hop mavens Massive Attack, whose Mezzanine is a straight-up album of the year (and they know it). The minute they found out he was from Virginia, that’s all they wanted to talk about: What was the weather like? Where is this place called Virginia Beach, this coastal stronghold of young black America? And do you know the man whose music lends Virginia such mystique? Do you know Timbaland?
The man in question is Tim Mosley, the 26-year-old producer from Virginia Beach known as Timbaland, and while his new collection, Tim’s Bio: From the Motion Picture: Life From Da Bassment, isn’t the best indicator, his contributions to hiphop production are as critical as those of the RZA or the Dust Brothers. True headz roll their eyes at this idea, mostly because Timbaland’s tracks fall into the vague and nebulous area where hiphop ends and R&B begins, a gray region near Miami bass and old-school electro that orthodox hiphop fans have usually condemned for its compromise of the Pure Breakbeat. Timbo’s tracks run like hell from ostentatious 4/4; they’re all triples and stutters, double-kick drums and snare snaps, subliminal congas and Casio bass thrums. Like the best and most original innovations, as opposed to failed experiments, his work seems instantly familiar, but you certainly can’t put your finger on why, and upon disassembly its antecedents vanish. But he’s the child that they spit upon; his tracks don’t bang or scratch; there’s nothing New York rugged or Cali gangsta about ’em (though they do seem to be part of the new “Dirty South”but that’s a whole ‘nother essay). They are neither hot nor cold, and are therefore spit out of the ruffneck’s mouth. And, of course, there’s Missy.
Jay-Z certainly knows what’s up. “Where Missy at?” he shouts on “Lobster & Scrimp,” Tim’s Bio’s best track. The relationship between songwriter-performer Missy Elliott and Timbaland is hiphop’s most compelling. They aren’t Svengali and puppet, or diva and accompanist. They seem to be, as they call themselves, “Wonder Twins,” hiphop’s Scully and Mulder, equal branches of the same avant-soul government. Their songwriting and production partnership has turned mainstream radio R&B into one of pop music’s most forward-thinking soundscapes. The most solid moments on Tim’s Bio are the most clearly collaborative. “Talking on the Phone” has Missy and Kelly Price intoning over squiggly Prince breakdowns, and the epic moaner “John Blaze” pairs Missy and Aaliyah over what may or may not be a shy, mellow ode to Method Man. This equality may be part of the reason hiphop purists look down their noses at the two. In a genre where “soft” is anathemaequal to “R&B bullshit”and women are often still just bitches, Missy and Timbaland are equal partners in an aesthetic drive that has more to do with exploding genres and making it new than “keeping it real” and staying hard.
Course, when the musicians are off their songwriting game, soundscapes only go so far. “Here We Come” may have sounded like a good idea while blunted (“hey, let’s do something with the theme from the old Spider-Man cartooncough”) but on wax, it’s an astonishing lapse of taste, a complete clunker from beginning to end. And it’s the single, believe it or not. The most generous will see it as a belch; the haters will see it as more ammoit’s that kind of song. Tim and Missy’s generosity sometimes seems to know no bounds. They’re still hanging around with this guy Magoo, who’s considered a decent rapper by serious fans only and must therefore be one hell of a nice guy. And Playa may be the least charismatic R&B vocal trio alive; someone has got to sit these guys down with Next or K-Ci & JoJo quick.
And no, for the last time, Tim cannot bust rhymes. He knows he’s nobody’s MC. He doesn’t even try to rock mikes as much as run his voice through a telephone and chat over the track. It’s hard to defend, but it does work now and again. Timbaland’s also not above occasionally breaking out the same jokes: The cooing baby from Aaliyah’s amazing “Are You That Somebody” shows up on “Fat Rabbit”; what was brilliant once comes off as lazy out of context. The excellent “Who Am I” (and no, it’s not as good as the Beenie Man song of the same name), featuring Twista, pales slightly when you hear the same guitar as Total’s chartbuster “What About Us,” produced by…guess who? But these are a collector’s complaints. Even recycling last month’s loops, Timbaland sounds light-years ahead of most of his contemporaries. The man’s done nothing less than add a few more letters to the beat alphabet, but here’s to his bouncing for a good long time. CP