Swing & a Missy: Can Missy Ellliott & Timbaland Recapture Their Old Magic?

The Brown Noise dislikes suit and tie raps that are cleaner than a bar of soap. I feel sorry for Missy Elliott. I really do. It’s pretty clear that she wants her big rap comeback to happen, but she...
By    January 15, 2013

The Brown Noise dislikes suit and tie raps that are cleaner than a bar of soap.

I feel sorry for Missy Elliott. I really do. It’s pretty clear that she wants her big rap comeback to happen, but she has no idea how to go about reclaiming her throne from Nicki, or Azealia, or Angel Haze, depending on the browser history of whoever you’re asking. Most crucially, neither does her primary collaborator, Timbaland. The man who was once an inescapable force on urban radio has not only lost the ability to make hits, but he’s lost the ability to make listenable beats. “The Party Anthem” is the surest indication yet that this former production titan has forgotten the joy he found in crafting snake-charmer rhythms and lush canopies of Arabian-scaled sound for musicians to spit or sing on.

The fact that this effort is so dismal shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who have been following Timbo’s career up through this point –or really anyone who’s been paying any attention to the direction rap music’s been heading in over the past five years. Timbaland started out working exclusively with R&B artists, painting sinewy, sensual canvases with open space for Aaliyah or Ginuwine to stretch out on. It was Missy Elliott, however, his childhood friend, who became his primary collaborator and muse. When they teamed up for the first time across the 1997 full-length Supa Dupa Fly, the result shattered conceptions of what hip-hop could be. Supa Dupa Fly’s trippy combination of live drums, snaggle-toothed bass lines, and Timbaland noodling on whatever instrument happened to be lying in the studio defined the sound of rap music through the tail end of the nineties and well into the new Willennium. Nary a sound felt out-of-place. The instrumentals were sparse, yet full-bodied, future-minded, yet still coded as pop songs.

Granted, Missy is equal parts to credit for the album’s success as Timbo. As a rapper, singer, and songwriter, she held her own against many of her male counterparts, with limber flow and just the right amount of weirdness, slurring her words in just the right places on “They Don’t Wanna Fuck With Me” and never allowing artists as unique as Busta Rhymes to overshadow her. Even Missy recognized, however, that without the right instrumental behind her, her words didn’t amount to much, pausing her rhymes on the same track to proclaim, “Ayo Timbaland, I’m a just dance a little bit…We don’t gotta rhyme through the whole track, the track is banging by itself, y’know what I’m sayin’?”

Supa Dupa Fly featured two Timbaland guest verses, one on the aforementioned track and another on the track that followed it on the CD, “Pass Da Blunt.” As a rapper, Timbaland was utilitarian in his approach, never overshadowing the other voices on the tracks, relegating his lines to a thin growl at his lower register, much more like another instrument than a rapper one checks for on songs. In these respects, he is very much like a ‘90s version of Tyga, a hitmaker whose solo career is the result of rapping on great beats alone– except Timbaland produces all his own bangers.

The closest he came to a full-fledged solo career during his ascension and reign came in the same year as Supa Dupa Fly, his collaborative album with another childhood, friend, the rapper Magoo. That effort, Welcome To Our World, is okay, and it’s lead single, “Up Jumps da Boogie” should be noted as one many fine moments in the late Aaliyah’s discography, but doesn;t merit revisiting today for any but the most die-hard Timbaland stans for the same reason a lot of rap records from the 90s don’t merit revisiting — namely, that it is a singles album, not an album-album.

Oddly enough, Timbaland’s peak as a combination rapper-producer arrived not on a Missy album, but on Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous”. Their flirtatious exchange is brilliant in it’s simplicity, delivered in couplets that any teenager could have easily inserted into an AIM convo or text from their Sidekick or Helio. For the first time, Timbaland was quotable on his own, calling himself Thomas Crown and warning Nelly, “Girl, I’m a freak, you shouldn’t say those things!” It was almost too charismatic to have been a solo effort, and indeed, Timbaland’s verse was ghostwritten by the rapper Attitude, in collaboration with Ms. Furtado.

If we can give Dr. Dre a pass for Kendrick doing him similar on “The Recipe” and most other Dre songs, we can give Timbaland a pass for that, especially considering that “Promiscuous” is one of his most sinewy beats yet, riding an entrancing flute groove to an orgasm of a synth blast that arrived at the chorus. It seemed that Timbaland had finally figured out how to make the beats and raps thing work at the same time. He was never going to be Kanye West, sure, but all signs pointed to no one stopping Timbaland – except Timbaland.

Many of you might remember Shock Value, Timbaland’s first album billed as a completely solo effort, despite the fact that guests appeared on all but one song. Those of you who remember might recall that it was atrocious, and those who might be willing to do a little homework might recognize that it is almost single-handedly responsible for the careers of every artist you’ve ever switched the radio dial on. From songwriter-turned-R&B “star” Keri Hilson to songwriter-turned-”rock” frontman-turned-songwriter again Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, Thomas Mosley did not leave a single stone unturned in picking the most mediocre and ill-fitting collaborators possible. Like every failed experiment from once bright stars, the failure of Shock Value was largely due to the party responsible not wanting it to be successful badly enough. On “Oh Timbaland”, Mosley raps, “Timbaland ain’t gotta run nowhere, baby / Timbaland got private planes”. You don’t have to be a RapGenius to decipher that as him saying “Fuck you, I’m rich. This shit has The Hives on it. Do you even know what I had to get through to make that song happen in 2007?! Buy my album. You like me. I promise you like me.”

Yes, like Master P before him and Lil’ Wayne and Kanye West after, Timbaland’s undoing was the result of so much artistic success that he felt the need to go and start his very own label, Mosley Music Group, now the second most famous MMG in hip-hop history. The rise of Timbaland as a Timba-brand directly correlates with the fall of Timothy Mosley as a producer. He was so distracted trying to get his label off the ground that he forgot to make “Ayo Technology” a hit. His work with Flo Rida on “Elevator” was mostly a retread of “Promiscuous”, and then “4 Minutes” became the worst Madonna single in 10 years until “Gimme All Your Luvin’” stole that ignoble title.

Another, and perhaps even more important, reason for Timbaland’s fall from grace was his increasing reliance on production protegé Danja. The Virginia Beach producer cut his teeth working with Teddy Riley on Blackstreet’s 2000 album Level II before landing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play his beats for Mr. Mosley himself — a few years later, he was racking up co-production credits like no tomorrow. Danja was instrumental in the creation of instrumentals for Game’s “Put You On The Game”, Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack”, and most of the Nelly Furtado album. Their mentor-mentee relationship quickly turned into a partnership of sorts, with Danja popping up next to Timbaland on nearly every record he produced from 2006-2008, the wholesome, organic jelly to Timbaland’s artisanal peanut butter. At least, that’s how it appeared on paper.

Behind the scenes, it was a different story, with Danja producing the brunt of each record and Tim Mosley taking more and more of a back seat every day. Nearly everything that Mosley was getting credit for in that era sprung from Danja’s brain, and as the music industry began to realize this, Danja became a star in his own right, producing “We Takin’ Over” for DJ Khaled, “Break The Ice” for Britney Spears, and most recently, “Bad Girls” for M.I.A.

Then came Scream. Ring any bells? Many of you might have finally suppressed all your memories of it after years of expensive psychotherapy. If that’s the case, sorry for reminding you. It was his full-length collaboration with Chris Cornell, formerly of Soundgarden and Audioslave. It was also atrocious. Mixing grunge and hip-hop is like like mixing orange juice and toothpaste, a vile acidic combination that should never be attempted under any circumstances no matter how many rappers name-check Kurt Cobain. You know what they say – once you go white, you’ll never again sound right. Collaborations with Katy Perry and Demi Lovato soon followed.

Fast forward a few years, and now we have “The Party Anthem.” First off, I shouldn’t be the one to break this to you, but be very skeptical of any and all music that straight up labels itself a party song in the title. It’s fine to just call your song an anthem, as “International Player’s Anthem” “Dipset Anthem” and “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” have proved in the past, but explicitly set your anthem at the party and you get, well, “Party Rock Anthem”. Except this instrumental has none of the humor of LMFAO, however sophomoric their sensibilities may be.  I’m not sure which yes-man in his camp assured him that minor key saloon-piano bounce and bass farts was an acceptable sound to chase in the year 2013, but I wish hell upon him. Sure, DJ Mustard scored a minor hit with 2 Chainz’ “I’m Different” but that’s because it’s infectious melody resolved itself. “The Party Anthem” is all charmless tension and no release. This beat is like Alchemist and Prodigy’s “Keep It Thoro” if both parties involved never did drugs at all.

Timbaland makes the biggest mistake off-the-bat by spitting first. Timbaland should never be spitting first on a song. Not even a Timbaland song. It is a bad, bad idea. He calls himself the modern-day Tony Stark, as if Ghostface Killah isn’t already the modern-day Tony Starks. In the past, awful beats have been redeemed by great rappers, but none of them do the job here. T-Pain sounds weirdly menacing, like he knows all the drinks are spiked with Rohypnol, while Wayne is Ray Charles to the bullshit as ever, bragging, “I sprinkle ‘Kill The World And Fuck ‘Em All’ in my cigars”. I’ve never heard of that strain before, but it sounds expensive!

Missy tries her best to sell her raps here, which is the problem, because Missy always sounded best when she sounded like she wasn’t trying at all. This is known as the Eminem Paradox, in which rappers slowly lose their sense of humor and hearing as they age, and begin raising their voice and making vice-principal caliber jokes ad infinitum on record until somebody pulls the plug on their zombified careers. Most shockingly, there is not a single moment of color or weirdness in her whole 16. No “can I get a ride on a white horse?” No nothing. The closest she comes is a line about continuing to rap until she has dentures, which would not be awful if she managed to pick literally anybody else with a singular, unique aesthetic as her collaborator other than Timbaland. Here are five producers off the top of my head that Missy would sound great on beats by: Cardo, AraabMUZIK, Sounwave, DJ Burn One, Mike Will Made It. All of these could turn in better work than “Ninth Inning / Triple Threat” or this terrible fiasco.

Then there’s the new Timbaland/Timberlake/Jay-Z single. Unfortunately, this anemic soul throwback confirms my worst thoughts. It’s a tepid slice of retromania that shoots for Sinatra and ends up somewhere between Robin Thicke and John Mayer. It’s almost as if Timbaland and Timberlake had no new ideas left, so they decided to write a crooner for a generation whose idea of classy is listening to the Fallout 3 soundtrack and Rainymood.com in simultaneous open browser tabs. Jay distinguishes himself in all the wrong ways, jacking flows from ASAP Rocky and generally sounding like a breathless old man. Beyonce is nowhere to be found. This is tepid, safe, king-of-the-universe music for adolescents approaching their third ever sexual encounter. Like sitting in the heart of French wine country and drinking Franzia. This is not the comeback single you’re looking for.

Let’s play with an extended metaphor. A legendary fashion designer has made his fortune off of expensive, well-tailored denim. The public loves it. They snatch up his clothes in droves. Stores flock to stock him. Suddenly, jeans aren’t popping and it’s all about expensive sweatpants on the streets of Everytown, USA. Stores across the country stop stocking jeans, including those created by the renowned designer. Obviously the designer is upset, because he loves jeans and hates to see them go out of style, but he also loves making money, so he gets to work on some designer sweatpants right away. Problem is, he has no passion for sweatpants. He skimps on materials. The measurements are all out of whack. The sweatpants look cartoonish, and the few stores that dare stock him are in the old part of town, and always sell their customers sweatpants that are two or three sizes too big.

This is what’s happening to Timbaland now. He had that organic hand-drum, pan flute ‘n’ string sound on lock for the better part of a decade, but now, Tim Mosley is just too hot for rap radio. I’m not talking hot in the way that we usually do when we call a song hot, I’m talking temperature-wise. Put out too many warm beats for too long and all that moisture floating around in the air condenses into cloud-rap. Noah Shebib, Clams Casino and Mike Will Made It turned the thermostat down on rap radio considerably, employing crystalline synth stalactites and icy beds of low-passed pads that sound like what you hear when you put your ear too close to a CRT TV, drawing inspiration primarily from European house and trance rather than the funk and soul of their producer predecessors.

Nowadays AraabMUZIK flips a Kaskade song and heads act like that is a logical and normal thing to do, and there’s nothing wrong with that, except that this sound is Kryptonite to Timbo. He wasn’t programmed to function in this radio environment, and any attempts at co-habitating the same space as “Band A Make Her Dance” and “Swimming Pools (Drank)” have ended miserably. It’s a shame, because Timbaland was one of the first to really incorporate original electronic instrumentation into a primarily sample-dominated field, and first turn ravers who’s prior closest hip-hop experience might have arrived through Massive Attack or Moby into full-fledged heads. He’s not used to these sounds, though. Maybe you can’t teach an old dog new synth presets.


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