Tuesday, September 26, 2017
Spin, January 1999
by Simon Reynolds
Maybe you've heard of the Jamaican tradition of "version" albums: a dozen or so tracks all built on top of the same bass-and-drum undercarriage. Different songs, different dubs, same riddim. Timbaland isn't quite so frugal with his creativity, but Tim's Bio does pretty much consist of 18 variations on that beat. For the last 18 months, Timbaland's convulsive kinesthetic — double-time kicks, crisp snares, spasmodic flurries of hi-hat — has dominated the R&B soundscape. So what's immediately striking about Bio is its failure to probe a fresh new direction.
But perhaps this complaint misses the point. Ever since it lost the "-'n'roll," rock has had a problem with repetition: Albums and shows are supposed to have dynamics, pacing, contrast, demonstrations of versatility; at a certain point more is always less. But in dance music, more is...more; repetition accumulates intensity, creates and sustains that crucial intangible known as "vibe." Black dance scenes (and their white mutations) work according to the principle Amiri Baraka dubbed "changing same": minute variations on the same building blocks (jungle's "Amen" breakbeat, Miami bass's sub-woofer-quaking 808 boom, dancehall's "pepper-seed" rhythm, and so forth). Mercenary copyists and opportunistic cloners play their part, too. For when a certain sound is doin' it the audience can't get enough of the good stuff. If you're in it, the slight tweaks and twists to the reigning formula have enormous impact whereas the uninvolved outsider hears only monolithic monotony.
That said, Timbaland really does need to come up with a new cyberfunk matrix. His frequent complaints about "beat-biters" are rich when Tim's Bio verges so frequently on self-plagiarism. Likewise the lyrics: Where last year's album with Magoo was thematically impoverished, this one's destitute, reaching its self-reflexive nadir with 'Here We Come' — a song based around the Spider Man theme. What does catch the ear is all the stuff interwoven around the basic grid-groove: the scurrying infestation of percussive detail, the digitally warped goblin vocals, the Afro-Dada grotesquerie of keyboard licks and sample squiggles, the onomatopoeic bass-talk.
The viral spread of ideas in dance culture works to erode the auteur theory, our ingrained impulse to fixate on originators. Timbaland's twitchy hypersyncopation was widely attributed to a drum'n'bass influence, something steadfastly denied by Tim and Missy. Now you can hear that imagined compliment being repaid by the children of jungle, in the form of the two-step garage style that currently rules London. Dropping the four-to-the-floor house pulse and "versioning" Timbaland's falter-funk kick, producers like Ramsey & Fen, KMA, and Dreem Teem are basically making smoov R&B filtered through a post-Ecstasy sensorium. Call it lover's jungle, strictly for the ladies' massive: midtempop bump'n'-grind, sped-up and succulent cyborg-diva vocals, a playa-pleasing patina of deluxe production. With the next phase of beat science being researched and developed in England, the "bumpy pressure" is really on for Timbaland, if he doesn't want to go the way of ex-pioneers like Jam & Lewis. The dance floor has no brand loyalty.
KING AND QUEEN OF THE BEATS: Timbaland and Missy Elliott
published as "Partners in the Engine Room of Rap"
director's cut, New York Times, August 1st 1999
by Simon Reynolds
Although history tends to focus on glamorous vocalists and visionary songwriters with something to say, black pop's evolution is as much about changes in rhythm and production. From the house sounds of Motown and Philadelphia International to the Chic Organisation's streamlined disco style and George Clinton's mini-empire of funk bands, it's a history made not by sacred cow artists but by session musicians and backroom technicians: musicians, producers, engineers, and, not least, their machines.
Typically, an up and coming producer taps some unforeseen potential in the latest technology and, for a couple of years, rewrites the rules of rhythm. In the mid-Eighties, Janet Jackson's producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis drafted a new blueprint for dance pop, using drum machine beats and synthesized basslines to build angular, abrasive grooves. By the end of that decade, producer Teddy Riley installed a new paradigm, marrying R&B's mellifluous melodies with hip hop's aggressive beats and sampled loops to create the style known variously as new jack swing or swingbeat.
In the last two years, Timbaland and Missy Elliott have reigned as unchallenged king and queen of the beats. Producing and writing for a stable of proteges that includes Aaliyah, Ginuwine, Nicole, Total, and Playa, they have scored a run of hugely successful smash singles on both the R&B and pop charts. Ms Elliott has also written hits for artists like Brandy, Mariah Carey, SWV, and Whitney Houston, and can reportedly demand $100, 000 per song. Ruling producers have hitherto tended to remain behind the scenes (Jam & Lewis) or subsume themselves in a band identity (Teddy Riley now operates as part of the harmony group Blackstreet). But Timbaland and Missy Elliott have pushed themselves forward as stars. Timbaland released a collaboration with rapper Magoo called Welcome To Our World in 1997 and a solo album proper late last year; Ms Elliott has just released her second album Da Real World, the sequel to 1997's platinum selling, Grammy-nominated Supa Dupa Fly.
The real testament to Timbaland and Elliott's hegemony, though, is the massive influence they've had on other R&B and rap artists. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the duo ought to be feeling pretty good about themselves. Instead, they seem rather embattled. Only a few minutes into Da Real World, Elliott is lambasting all the producers who have copied Timbaland's distinctive jittery beats and stop-start grooves: "beat biter, dope style taker... you just an imitator, stealing our beats like you're the one who made them." That style really came together on Aaliyah's late 1996 hit "One In A Million," which was written by Elliott, produced by Timbaland, and typifies their collaborations in the way the beat is as hooky as the melody. . A ballad built around a push-me-pull-you groove, the song introduced many of Timbaland's trademark tricks: syncopated bass drums stuttering in triple time spasms, irregular flurries of hi-hats, and skittery snares. As with earlier rhythmic innovations, from Seventies funk to Nineties jungle, the Timbaland sound practically enforces a new kind of dancing, full of twitches, jerks and tics. You can see it in Missy Elliott's videos like "Beep Me 911" and the current "She's A Bitch," where the choregraphy resembles a kind of geometrically precise epilepsy and sometimes recalls the body-popping style of Eighties breakdancing.
Alongside their massive influence on American R&B, Timbaland's twitchy beats have caught the ear of British electronica artists. On their new album Surrender, The Chemical Brothers sampled a vocal hook from Nicole & Missy Elliott's's "Make It Hot" for their track "Music: Reponse", transforming the sexual come-on of "I got whatcha want/I got whatcha need" into a DJ's boast. In London, a whole scene and sound has emerged called two-step, based around the merger of Timbaland's hyper-syncopated drums with jungle's booming bass and house's succulent synth licks. The respect that Timbaland and Missy Elliott have received in the electronica field shows that although the duo are classified as R&B, their skills at digitally manipulating rhythms and creating eerie sounds make them among the most accomplished and innovative electronic artists on the planet. Indeed, critics have long suggested that Timbaland's assymetrical grooves owe something to jungle; Timbaland has denied this, but does give the nod to electronic artists like Prodigy, Tricky, and Bjork, whom he's sampled a couple of times.
Like techno artists, Timbaland and Elliott are obsessed with the future. They are determined that their records sound avant-garde and futuristic, and they're infatuated with special effects laden science fiction movies like The Matrix. The title of Ms Elliott's new album comes from a pivotal line of dialogue in The Matrix: "welcome to the real world".
Both Missy's music and her Hype Williams produced videos have a hallucinatory quality. Supa Dupa Fly is a shapeshifting phantasmagoria of sampled sound, where unlikely sources (baby's gurgles, birdsong, insect-like chitters, horse whinnies, and dog barks) are transformed into polyrhythmic devices. Listen closely, and beats turn out to be made from gasps or giggles, and a bassline is molded from the human voice. It's headphone R&B, and like electronica, it's most inventive on the level of rhythm and texture, rather than songcraft. "Hook on songs are more major than verses. People hardly remember verses," Elliot told rap magazine The Source. For the most part, Elliott's vocal hooks are delivered in a style midway between singing and rapping, and generally work percussively as much as melodically. She specialises in devising complex vocal arrangements which interlock with the rhythm tracks like cogs. Timbaland and Elliott also pepper their tracks with tiny, almost subliminal vocal riffs--onomatopeic noises and nonsense chants, half-spoken ad libs--which add to the rhythmic density of the music.
Da Real World arrives at a critical moment for the Elliot/Timbaland dynasty, when the duo's influence remains endemic but their own momentum shows signs of flagging. They've maintained their profile in 1999 with Elliot penning the R&B smash "Where My Girls At?" for diva trio 702 and Timbaland producing Ginuwine's second album and the hit track "Jigga What?" for rapper Jay-Z. But Timbaland's solo album was generally received as a disappointment, and some wonder if his production skills peaked with last year's astonishing Aaliyah hit "Are You That Somebody?." It's an abiding dilemma for pop innovators. Do you repeat what was so successful before at the risk of adding your own self-plagiarism to the melee of clones and copyists? Or do you struggle for self-reinvention at the risk of alienating your audience? This quandary has undone many artists in the past. Synth-pop pioneers Kraftwerk, for instance, became paralysed by the enormity of their own influence and the challenge of staying ahead of the state-of-art.
Da Real World sees Elliott and Timbaland struggling to come up with fresh twists to their formula. Sonically, Da Real World marks a shift to a harsher sound that Timbaland has called "real dark, real ghetto". The new style includes bombastic quasi-orchestral riffs, booming sub-bass, and stiff, angular beats and booming sub-bass, all of which sometimes recall Curtis Mantronik's late Eighties productions for T. La Rock and Mantronix in the late Eighties, but is more likely a nod to the current popularity of New Orleans bounce, an electro-influenced style of rap. Persona-wise, Elliot has swapped the playfulness of Supa Dupa Fly for a pugnacious "street" attitude and a dramatically increased level of profanity. Abandoning Supa's kooky surrealism and free associational lyrics, Elliott has penned a series of tough-talking songs: "You Don't Know" threatens a girl who's trying to steal her man, "All 'N My Grill" reprimands a deadbeat live-in lover who won't pay his way, and "Hot Boyz" is a hormone-crazed paean to sexy roughnecks who tote machine guns, flex Platinum Visa cards and drive expensive jeeps. The harder, ghettocentric sound and lyrics smack somewhat of a calculated attempt at repositioning Elliot in a market where "real-ness" is back in favor thanks to rappers like DMX and Jay-Z.
Coming from a debut artist, Da Real World would be garlanded with acclaim. But given the expectation that Missy and Timbaland would rewrite the rules of R&B again, the album is anti-climactic. Da Real World peaked at #10 on the pop charts and rapidly slid to #22. Furthermore, Missy Elliot's audience seem unconvinced or, worse, alienated by her image tweak. The first single off the album, "She's A Bitch"--a strained and tuneless attempt to project bad attitude, with a baleful monochrome video markedlly different to the polychromatic psychedelia of the earlier promos--only reached #30 on the R&B charts. For an artist of Missy Elliott's stature and track record, that's a flop.
But then the rap and R&B marketplace is cruel even by pop standards; brand loyalty barely exists, artists are only as hot as their latest track. So are Missy and Timbaland going to go the way of other ex-pioneers, like Jam & Lewis? Elliott has her own major label funded imprint Gold Mind and a long line of proteges waiting in the wings. Timbaland might want to consider a strategic retreat from the spotlight in order to concentrate on crafting tunes for his proven hitmakers Ginuwine and Aaliyah, and to R&D some new gimmicks (he's talked about creating beats built from the sound of a stylus skipping on a scratched record). Perhaps the greatest solace for the duo is that there's no powerhouse producer threatening to usurp their throne. (Although there might have been a hint of anxiety when Timbaland recently gave his seal of approval to a young pretender: Swizz Beats, who's crafted beats for Jay-Z and for his own outfit Ruff Ryders). At the moment, there's an interregnum in R&B--everyone's waiting for the new king of the beats to take over.