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The Miseducation of Thomas Crown

By Chet Betz | 18 December 2006

Little Tim Mosley, born 10 March 1971 in Norfolk, Virginia: one imagines a childhood home where the parents play lots of P-Funk and Herbie Hancock, and that shit sticks with Timmy, but he's also smuggling in vinyl of the Bee Gees' Main Course and the B-52's self-titled, playing those household taboos at a midnight hush after the 'rents have retired. Maybe one night mother comes out for a glass of water -- Timmy rushes to hit the needle, but too late; a long moment passes before, to Timmy's very surprised relief, mom just barely smiles. She walks over and runs her hand across Timmy's brow. Then, in her best Will Smith voice, says, "Don't let anyone tell you what to do. Not even me."

Timbaland, you beautiful son of a bitch, keep on keepin' on. And if one can relish this year's overexposure of the big teddy bear with his bemused eyebrows, paunchy smirk, and zero-gravity beats, can turn a forgiving blind eye to the inevitable missteps (and especially to this nauseating p.o.s.), surely one can feel comfortable with the following assertion: Timbaland is one of contemporary pop's most powerful and important iconoclasts. 2006 served as a consummate testament to that.

Let's emphasize the "pop" here, for the Connor Morris line runs that Timbo's at his best not when he's dropping hip-hop, but when he's using hip-hop principle to lace subversive creativity through your next front-page Billboard hit -- that re-jigging the populace's conception of what makes for accessible, universal music is what inspires and crystallizes his finest work. His stranger hip-hop tracks scavenge through the diaspora of cultures (the tabla drums of "Get Ur Freak On," the Mtukudzi riffing of "Party People"), but he brings that same sensibility and technique to his R&B pop (the gamelan game at the end of "We Need a Resolution," the Middle Eastern woodwinds of "Come As You Are"). Vocal clucks and synthetic snap-crackle-pops play out like dude's got his sequencer set to "bols." And even when he's not borrowing elements outright, Tim's forged a distinct rhythmic flair from patterning his compositional units after unusual (to Western ears, anyways) world music phrasings and then familiarizing us pop listeners by way of precise, hard-nosed looping.

In his recent Alexander Tucker review Mark Abraham explains that the idea of musical rhythm is, if not indefinable, very much dependent upon a small mystery in the way that human sensation reacts to the spatial and temporal placement of sounds. Conveniently, that citation supports this article's right to suggest that Aaliyah's "Are U That Somebody" has one of the '90s most indelible verse melodies, and that it's a melody made mostly out of rhythm, boldfacing the "R" in R&B. Timbaland then figures out how to make cawing baby noises sound sublime on the hook, thus cementing the song as an against-odds classic. His and Aaliyah's best collaborations (and Tweet's "Oops, Oh My") exemplify the degree to which a populist goal and a singer who is a blank canvas-muse can charge Tim's brilliance, almost like the inverse of what "out" concepts serve as fuel for experimentalists like Tucker. No one's trying to say "whatever" to all the dirty, dizzying shit he's done with Missy; "forget about it" to the Jigga bangers "Big Pimpin'" or the two best tracks on Hard Knock Life; and, okay, Ginuwine's "Pony" sounds a little silly these days, but Tim's music has never been more inventive or stunning than it has on the likes of "Are U That Somebody," "More Than a Woman," and "Try Again." Yes, you can call Cee-Lo's "I'll Be Around" a buoyant fucking masterpiece, and I'll agree and call it pop, not rap.

2006 almost over-backs the claim since the Timbaland rap track on the Diddy was shitty while the mostly R&B "After Love" was the best song on the thing, and he's never had a good year more pop than this one: chart-ubiquitous "Promiscuous" dropped like a Mosley-shaped hydrogen bomb. In theory Furtado & Timbo are a befuddling mismatch, but in practice Nelly stretched a little while Tim stretched a lot. The result was an album that worked as long as our man held down the boards, and it often delivered in ways we hadn't come to expect from him. Sure, Loose sported a lot of the dog's old tricks, effectively but most assuredly on the Middle Eastern exploitation of "Wait For You" (which further sours the all too recognizable flavor of his beat for Timberlake's "What Goes Around"). Yet we'd never heard him do something as deliberately reggaeton as "No Hay Igual," and that's because Nelly was likely the first to ask for deliberate reggaeton -- and rap-rock ("Afraid") and '80s pop updates ("Say It Right" and "Do It") and friggin' Coldplay ("All Good Things," which, okay, does have a pseudo-predecessor in Brandy's "Should I Go"). Tim handled each genre excursion with aplomb, making it eclectic while making it work while somehow making it all sound like a wonderful Timbaland.

Hogging up the album's primetime section side-by-side, it was "Promiscuous," "Maneater," and "Glow," though, that made Loose such an exciting sign of development in Tim's game. Continuing in completely new directions from where he left off with the best single of 2002, JT's "Cry Me a River," Timbaland embraced pure, unadulterated, but still progressive radio pop with Nelly's big three. No ethnic gimmicks, no polyrhythmic tangles, no babies, and, thank heavens, no Magoo. Just unstoppable drums, glorious synthesizers, ethereal BGVs, and production polished to a dazzling shine, all used as special delivery for simple pleasures: boy-girl repartee, hooks that were choruses, and melodies that were just melodies. A comparison between the "Promiscuous Girl" bootleg and the final "Promiscuous" reveals the drive of a tireless craftsman (and possible perfectionist); the prototype was already spectacular, but it didn't have its drum hits fill out on the second verse, didn't have the tiny string ripples that bring up the hook's rear while mimicking the verses' flute line an octave up (quid pro quo with Nelly's vocal lift), nor the sly coda guitar that echoes those strings and so brings the song to a very satisfying close. Unfortunately, Loose's reception was hindered by some poor live performances on SNL and elsewhere (outside of the album's amazing, NASA-enhanced vocal production, Nelly's no Aaliyah, and her exaggerated intonations tend to grate). The less said about Timbaless "Te Busque" and "In God's Hands" the better.

FutureSex/LoveSounds followed a mere three months later, and this was the album that the critics fondled. Justin had returned to the man who'd given him the break-up jam, and this time they were going to replace that hit's melodrama with an overarching bent on "bringing sexy back." But this ambition to move past pop's adolescent romanticism towards complacency and fey fucking, in conjunction with Justin's tired affectations, resulted in an album too content with itself, too easy and lacking in pathos, too loyal to its foolish virgule conceit in allowing a hot track like "Summer Love" to get sand-bagged by "Set the Mood." The Timbalake two were striving for something more grand, cohesive, and orchestrated than Loose, and what they achieved was something that was mostly just more uniform and uninteresting. Timbaland one-upping screwed & chopped rap with "Chop Me Up" was the stylistic anomaly, and a flawlessly executed one, but still it sounded uninspired. The more typical pop demands of Furtado's album were iron on iron for Timbaland's sharpness, as well; FutureSex/LoveSounds shopped his gusto out to the bombast (most ridiculous on "Losing My Way") and the odd coupling of tracks, so from what motivation was left over came shit like first single "Sexy Back," where we got crass drums and rote synth and not much actual "sexy."

But while there's more hormonal fervor in just one measure of "Pass That Dutch," Timberlake's latest did come with one hell of a paradise for its oasis: "My Love" was perhaps the single best reason to call 2006 a great year in Timbaland. So it had little of the ache or revelation of "Cry Me a River" -- bah. Its sweeping immediacy and jeweled sonic splendor knew nothing comparable in the Timbaland canon. The synthesizers were rays of sunlight skittering across space dust, crashing into atmospheres and making auroras. The percussion was an immaculate meld of programming with absurd beatboxing. The hook was epiphany and rapture. Tim once again reached East, but it'd never been quite like this, a Chinese opera swoon nesting in the branches just above Timberlake's falsetto. "Glow" did use a similar effect, yes, so then consider that this diaphanous aria was introduced in tandem with scratches like chirping dolphins and blips like stray notes sparking off the main phaser chords. Heart-melting.

Skipping right over Omarion's "Ice Box" like it never happened, let's look ahead to 2007 and what unlikely artists Timbaland's supposedly got slopped on the clean china plate of his aesthetic: Duran Duran, Fall Out Boys, Elton John, The Hives, and, yes, more Chris Martin. All would seem to make for disastrous collaborations, except that Timbaland's proved it's not that simple with him; it doesn't seem too much of a stretch to state that Big Tim Mosley might be the closest thing our generation has to its Phil Spector. And this is being said not just about a person who's building from the traditions of hip-hop and electronica, but about a singular vision that has evolved out of wide-reaching world culture integration and bold experimentation, all to the aim of making pop music that more and more people will want to hear. Maybe there's hope for us yet.

*****

Betz has suggested to Mr. Mosley that he sample Dom Sinacola's impressive arm-farts for the rumored track on Shock Value featuring She Wants Revenge. So far, no response.