A slight detour...
Irony of ironies: thanks to (um) Fly or Die
, the Australian rock media have finally caught onto the idea that the Neptunes are ubiquitous. Article after article appears profiling the duo’s stranglehold over the pop radio landscape. “Thankfully”, the subtext of each article goes, “they redeem themselves with their band outfit N.E.R.D., who make music that is promisingly close to rock!” Such subtexts are as inevitable as Australian articles on Outkast praising Andre 3000’s rejection of rap – he’s now bitten the Jay-Z “hip hop is corny” meme, and hey, aren’t Squarepusher and Aphex Twin, like, so amazing?? – and painting Big Boi as a selfish and desperate (not to mention talentless and worryingly playa-like) hanger-on who rides Andre’s coattails to success.
Funny thing is, far from being everywhere, it seems like The Neptunes are suddenly nowhere. I can’t think of a single hit they’ve had this year, unless you count “Milkshake”. Was “She Wants To Move” so colossal a mistake that it’s become their kiss of death? By this time last year they already had maybe ten hits for the year under the belt, a year before that maybe twenty! What’s going on?
Meanwhile Timbaland is getting around
like nobody’s business. Which is a healthy sign, I think: right now any time spent away from Missy can only have a positive effect. With each new/newish Timbaland track I hear, my suspicions only go stronger: the man needs
to dump this whole pseudo old-skool minimalism schtick. Yeah, it worked a charm on Under Construction
, but by This Is Not A Test
what had started off perfectly poised along that imaginative/goofy tripwire had fallen headlong into mulchy seriousness. The shift in Missy’s outfits from puffy pink jackets to black leather said it all really: the time for fun was over, and old-skool-the-party-trick was replaced by old-skool-the-really-wearying-by-now-lecture. I can even hear how a track like “I’m Reall Hot” has a good beat, but its oppressive plea (“TAKE ME SERIOUSLY”) just bores me.
Away from Missy, Timbaland’s moody minimalism tends to have mixed results: Jentina’s “Bad Ass Stripper” is certainly pretty strong in the slippery, sliding eastern beats department, but it’s hard not to compare its grimly lurching groove with the more extroverted pile driving of something like Bubba’s “Get Me Right” from ’01, which pulled off the same trick with considerably more enthusiasm and flair. Indeed a lot of current Timbo tracks remind me of Bubba’s first album: Lloyd Banks “I’m So Fly” and Shawnna’s “Shake That Shit” have the same mournful melodicism of that album’s more subdued Timbaland tracks (what's the melancholy guitar-driven one whose name I can't remember now?) - the former matches Lloyd’s slightly bluesy vocals with spectral synth clouds, smacking drums and some marvellously bouncy piano to create a groove that reeks of sepia – not so much old-skool as antique.
“Shake That Shit” rides a dirty, throbbing acoustic guitar line for some high noon in the Wild West tension – add some dry clicky beats and melodramatic strings straight outta Da Real World
and it’s a compelling argument for the value of judicious self-cannibalisaton. Also check the persistent rustle in the background, like a horde of maracas hovering malevolently. I also like how its repetitious throb intentionally echoes “Stand Up” (being a duet with Ludacris, I guess the track is
something of a sequel) while objectively sounding nothing like it. Neither of these tracks are classics, but they please me insofar as they suggest that Timbaland is (at least some of the time) back on the right track.
What they demonstrate more than adequately is that Timbaland’s power now largely (perhaps solely) resides in the allusive
quality of his arrangements. Let’s face it, the rhythmic advances started to dry up at the end of ’01, and there’s not much that Timbaland can now do in that area that other producers in hip hop or dancehall (is Dreamweaver riddim gonna start invading hip hop clubs any time soon?) can’t. What he can do, and to some extent has
been doing, is to hone in on the other components of his sonic equation – the instrumental, sampladelic and melodic components.
Here we must turn to Bubba’s second album, which late last year stood out like a sore thumb with its gloriously brazen use of country motifs (“Comin’ Round”), its heavy instrumentation (“Deliverance”), its formal loveliness and epic scope (“Nowhere”) and absolutely no old-skool biznizz to be seen. Jess
suggested that many of these grooves could be by anyone but if you allow for the possibility of a Timbaland phenotype
- existing in marked contrast, perhaps even opposition to his more celebrated work - then it’s easier to see this stuff as being part of a narrative that stretches all the way back to “One In A Million” with its birdsong and heavenly reversed guitar loop outro.
You could argue that Kiley Dean’s “Keep It Moving” is something of a “One In A Million” update (which makes its non-release even more outrageous) but it actually reminds me of the Ginuwine and Aaliyah duet “Final Warning” in its relaxed and elongated largesse. All the sound in this song is swirly and bleeding – a compressed and reversed blend of eastern motifs that cushion Kiley’s restrained performance in a palatial softness of such presence that the beats, though as nuanced and sophisticated as ever, are forced to take something of a back seat. And it’s nice to once more see beats that aren’t restricted
to smashing clubs, are instead gentle or evocative. When the groove finally does reassert itself, for an eerie extended middle-eight that is the highpoint of the song, the rhythm veers close to the sort of profuse clapping used to such little effect on “Pass That Dutch” or “The Jump Off” – here, the soft wetness of the beats instead brings to mind a tango scene from a musical. It’s this perversity – subverting the beats for a purpose not originally envisioned – which lifts this use of the device above its previous incarnations.
It’s not that this eccentric approach is automatically superior to a mercantile facility for club bangers. It’s just that Timbaland has difficulty with the latter – they’re usually indifferent unless they’re also
eccentric. Bubba’s “Twerk a Little” may be one of the most physically compulsive grooves I can think of, but a good deal of its compulsion arises from the body’s shock at what the beat is asking it to do. Indeed, at the height of his powers, Timbaland was crafting grooves whose brilliance had no apparent relation to eachother. How to explain the eerie, agoraphobic backwards funk of “Come & Get Me”, the coked up eastern stomp of “Big Pimpin”, the dehydrated rigor mortis spasms of “Is That Yo Bitch”, the hoover explosions of “Snoopy Track” and the high-noon handclap noir of “It’s Hot (Some Like It Hot)” all rubbing shoulders on the same Jay-Z album?
The Timbaland phenotype finds its latest and most obviously exciting manifestation in Petey Pablo’s “Get On Dis Motorcycle”, a mildly astonishing mixture of bounce beats, tensely chiming sitar (reminiscent of the great Famine riddim), swooping strings and, most crucially, a starry-eyed loop of a group of kids’ tribal chant that oddly reminds me of Disco Inferno’s “Starbound: All Burnt Out & Nowhere To Go”, simultaneously anthemic and portentous. The result is quite magical, audaciously reaching for a sparkling majesty that it’s difficult to find a precedent for. This
is what Timbaland’s real gift is: not any particular approach to a groove but rather his ability to confound his own methodology, to throw away his own rulebook and just confound you with something from out of total leftfield.
It’s a narrative that is undoubtedly more “pop” than it is “hip hop”, more about imaginative and irresistible arrangements than really good beats. One suspects that the critical over-emphasis on the genotype, and corresponding embrace of This Is Not A Test
and similar production work, is born of a desire for Timbaland to be more
of a hip hop producer and less of a pop producer, peddling a consistent and thus easily assimilatable aesthetic whose purpose is to establish some sort of accumulative greatness through sheer persistant reliability – a DJ Premier style crafter of “quality” beats like quality rinds of pork (a related discussion that might be worth having: “How many Madlib beats do you really need?”).
But for all that his stuttering beats almost single-handedly transformed R&B and hip hop at some point in the late nineties, Timbaland’s trump card has always been his willingness to efface and deface his own signature, happily dropping a forumale once he’s squeezed enough mileage out of it. I used to lament this habit of pre-emptive abandonment (think of all the potentially amazing tracks being denied an existence!), but as time goes on and his stylistic turnover slows, the approach seems eminently sensible. While the Neptunes can (or could?) successfully churn out endless reiterations of a few basic themes, Timbaland’s attempts to rework his own ideas usually result in diminishing returns – witness the decline of his old-skool aesthetic. Meanwhile, as time goes on, it is indeed those aborted narratives, inspired experiments and out-of-character one-offs that give Timbaland’s back-catalogue its lustrous shine. If that means that we won’t get any more tracks that sound like “Get On Dis Motorcycle”, so be it; as long as we get more tracks that feel