“Dope Beats To Step To”: Timbaland’s King Stays King

Dean Van Nguyen takes a look at the new Timbaland mixtape, trying to gleam a return to form by the legendary producer.
By    January 20, 2016

Art by Alain Zirah

Dean Van Nguyen introduced Timbaland to his weight lifting regiment.

If Jay-Z built a modern day imperial empire then guys like Timbaland were the Shogun’s assassins. From the block to the boardroom, Mr. Carter ascended the throne of thorns, but the music was always his militant wing—where he flexed his strength and dared you to question his authority. More so than any of the pricey instrumentals fed to him, Timbo’s beats crushed with the power of a panzer tank.

There’s an old clip from the 2004 documentary Fade To Black that’s been circulating the internet again recently. Bringing some new sounds into the studio, Tim hits play on the beat that would become “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and, in the moment, Jay probably forgets he’s on camera. Maybe he even forgets where is he is. All that matters is the music, seeping up his flared nostrils, melting away his facial features and rattling through his skeleton—it was a beat to make him question his whole existence. “I’m the best there is,” Timbaland declares. Few would dare argue with him.

Tim wants to take you back on his new mixtape King Stays King. Back to the nineties and his first steps towards super-producer supremacy—before the daft solo pop crossovers, or the inane beef with Scott Storch. Before the cringey collaborations with Chris Cornell, Fall Out Boy and a half dozen others, or the trash Empire joints. Timbo’s committed enough sins in the years since “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” to drown a dozen lesser producers. King Stays King lays out why we have so wanted him to stay afloat.

Spinning like a playlist quickly compiled for your roommate’s nineties-themed birthday party, the production is textured and thumping—a seismic wave of the Virginian’s trademark stuttering rhythms, thick drums, eastern flutes and digital grooves. Tim and co-producers Fade Majah and Milli impart his retro-futuristic philosophy to great effect. The beats sound mechanized but animate—shuffling like synthentic organisms with systematic machinery moving beneath the flesh. The music throbs like an artificial heartbeat. If “Pony” sounded like the future, then maybe the future is now.

The most obvious signpost on Tim’s journey into the past is “Shakin,” which features a previously-unreleased vocal from one of his original muses, Aaliyah. The take sounds incomplete, with just a single verse and chorus provided by the late singer, padded out with bars from little-known rapper Strado. Still, Babygirl’s gentle coos and disarming sexuality recall her “Are You That Somebody”-era output. The beat pops and clicks with just a touch of symphonic orchestration sewn into its DNA. Tim’s shoe-horned in presence on the call-and-response hook is a little suffocating, but it’s still a treat to hear Aaliyah sing on one of his tracks—a reminder that the pair were at the center of everything that was great about late nineties R&B.

But while the fractured nature of “Shakin” is understandable, King Stays King is consistently hamstrung by Tim’s failure to take his beats and turn them into fully-functioning songs. More a series of sketches than completed tracks, the album is all surface-level spark with little room for pathos.

Emptying out his bench, Tim leans mostly on unknowns and first-time collaborators, and the results are predictably uneven. Southside’s “Fuck Up Some Commas” beat is cut up into the wobbly “Where You At!”, but rapper Blaze Serving’s unsteady hook, silly one-liners and struggles to stay on beat aren’t fit for purpose. The eternally-average 2 Chainz is crushed by the screwed drum ‘n’ bass of “This Me, Fuck It”, while alt R&B grinder “All I See Is You” makes you appreciate how well Abel Tesfaye reins stuff like this in.

It’s not all dead ends. The most eyebrow-raising track comes with the union of Tim and Young Thug, who is dropped into Streets of Rage’s industrial zone on the album’s most challenging instrumental, “Didn’t Do It.” The beat’s all heavy equipment and grinding machinery, rumbling like a coal-powered behemoth that would crush a lesser MC’s voice into a tiny metal cube. Thugger’s madcap flow is in full flight here. His power to inject his own twisted melody into any warped orchestration is on display for all to see.

Elsewhere, Rich Homie Quan doesn’t shirk the broad canvas of Tim’s horror movie keys on “Shawty,” filing the track with a loose, confident ode to his girl. Best of all is the Missy Elliott-esque bounce of “Drama Queen,” the highpoint of Tim’s new-age afflatus Tink’s three contributions. The 20-year-old takes the goofy instrumental and runs with it, giving a savage undressing of her ex in full air-head mode that stings like battery acid.

Throughout King Stays King, Timberland regularly encourages listeners to “have a great Christmas,” suggesting he sees this as a stopgap release with little longevity or replay value. The lack of kid gloves with the material shows that there are too many half a mil beats with a couple grand performances. But for the first time in years, there are moments when his fingertips touch the kind of form that stunned Jay Z into a stupor. Mr. Mosley’s future might just glimmer if lit by triumphs of the past.

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