According to Billboard, "Sexyback" was last year's longest running No. 1. It proved that Justin Timberlake is the world's favorite male pop star, that his career will be long, perhaps even dignified. But it also reestablished something else: that its producer, Timbaland -- who joins JT's FutureSex/LoveShow this Saturday at the Q -- is perhaps the greatest producer of Top 40 pop music of the last decade. Justin may be the face of that music, but Timbaland is the sound.
In fact, Timbaland is his generation's Phil Spector -- rash but true. His list of credits is staggering. Beginning in the early '90s with names like Jodeci, Ginuwine, and longtime friend and collaborator Missy Elliott, it just keeps growing and growing: Jay-Z, Beck, Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, Brandy, and Lloyd Banks. And yet, just like Spector, Timbaland possesses a limited number of stylistic moves that he's clung to throughout his career -- and that never seem to go out of style. This, after all, is his genius.
Timbaland was born Timothy Mosley in 1971 in Virginia, where he met Elliott, whose coattails he would eventually ride straight into the industry. In 1996, he produced Ginuwine . . . The Bachelor, which featured the hit single "Pony." The rest, as they say, is history, with Timbaland's beats dominating hip-hop and R&B in the late '90s and early '00s. Try to imagine a world without "Big Pimpin," "Get Ur Freak On," and Ludacris' "Roll Out (That's My Business)."
Prior to 2006, however, it appeared Timbaland's best days were behind him. He remained relatively quiet in 2004 and '05, while the rise of such super-producers as Kanye West, Scott Storch, and Pharrell made it look as if there were new and bigger fish in the sea.
But five No. 1 singles later, Timbaland is back on top, with two of 2006's biggest records -- Nelly Furtado's Loose and Timberlake's Futuresexlovesound -- owing their success to the producer's signature sound, a thing as simple as it is idiosyncratic. Spector's genius was based on a similar kind of simplicity: the wall of sound. Translation: Add a bunch of extra instruments, and turn down the vocals. Remarkably, though, Spector's techniques worked for decades. So have Timbaland's, and he shows no signs of slowing.
Here, then, are a few of those techniques. For better or worse, forcing a singer to perform at gunpoint isn't one of them.
Background Rapping: Timbaland ain't the best rapper. Like his bargain-basement equivalent Puff Daddy, you 're more likely to find him murmuring "yeah" or "mmm" than sharing the spotlight; that's him you hear bleating, "So don't give away," before JT croons, "My Love." Unfortunately, though, he does pop out front on occasion -- see Furtado's "Promiscuous."
Cheesy Synths: At first, they're totally annoying: those thick, low-budget analog synth stabs -- Timbaland's bread 'n' butter. The best example is, of course, "Sexyback," all those 12-year-olds on the dance floor dialing into what sounds like the death throes of a cheap Casio. But after a couple listens, you're hooked. Why? Only Timbaland could explain.
Clipped Snares: Compare the kick-snare sound in Furtado's "Maneater" to that in Timberlake's "Sexyback." Very similar. In fact, Timbaland generally builds his trademark sound from quick, jabbing snares, light cracks, and curt, flitting hi-hats -- while avoiding the long, drawn-out West Coast thump of an 808 drum machine.
Space: If you're gonna live by a less-is-more philosophy -- as this dude so obviously does -- you have to understand the dynamics of space. Observe "My Love" to hear Timbaland's mastery. Built on a bed of barely-there drums and a swelling synth arpeggio, the song sounds huge -- three-dimensional, a steamy greenhouse in which Timberlake unleashes his robust falsetto.
World Sounds: Remember the Indian raga from "Big Pimpin"? Timbaland is not the first to nick sounds from world music, but he's probably the most successful at it. Sure, Furtado's "No Hay Igual" is no "Get Ur Freak On" (what is?), but it demonstrated that Timbaland's skills haven't rusted a bit. Stay tuned later this year for even more Timbaland productions, including records by Björk and Duran Duran -- who, with any luck, he will point a gun at.