By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Roughly a year ago, hip hop's premier breakbeat scientist, Timbaland (a.k.a. Tim Mosley, of Arlington, Va.) stepped up to the mic and introduced himself in an otherworldly vocoded rap that recalled George Clinton's growl-outs to Chocolate City. "How many songs am I gonna hear on the radio that sound like mine?" he wondered on his breakthrough "collaboration" with nugatory pal Magoo, Welcome to Our World. Yet Tim wasn't venting the typical hip-hop artiste's rage against a potential nation of beat biters. Far from it, the maestro was genuinely thrilled at the possibility of hearing his idiosyncratic rhythmic twitch set a new pulse for R&B.
Techno veterans ID'd his stuttering high-hats and double-timed rimshot breakbeat as the characteristic inflections of drum 'n' bass. Hip-hop cartographers charted a course from the RZA's steely New York soundscapes to the pulsing riddims of the Dirty South. Conscientious old-schoolers, clinging to their jones for that tired old playa hater "originality," clucked at the masses like overprotective mothers: "You stay away from that nasty Sean Combs and play nice with that Mosley boy." And the rest of the world jittered along obliviously, thrilling to the loosest populist funk to appear since Quincy Jones bit "Soul Makossa."
Since then, the good deeds for which Timbaland is responsible--whether directly or indirectly--have become innumerable. If he hadn't cribbed the theme from Knight Rider on the "Clock Strikes (remix)," Pras would never have jacked "Islands in the Stream" on "Ghetto Supastar." In late '98 even the lamest drizzle from a Quiet Storm ballad brings Tim's trademark cymbal stammer, and his influence has even made the unimaginable--a listenable Whitney Houston record (her new My Love Is Your Love)--a terrifying actuality. But most important, he has defined R&B, rather than hip hop, as the site of rhythmic innovation and, consequently, made the R&B airwaves, rather than the post-alt graveyard, the locus of commercial pop creativity.
Fools in search of "pure pop" have wasted countless hours convincing themselves that they really do sort of like that Fastball single. We R&B stalwarts, however, have been taking pleasure from a revision of the Four Tops' revelation: People may be hell-bent on singing "the same old song," but they're always ready to see it pegged to a brand-new beat.
But when you're everywhere--like God, McDonald's, or Timbaland--is there anywhere left to go? At this late date, any long-playing showcase of Tim's skills is bound to come off as a tad redundant, no matter how many vocal accomplices he enlists (I lost count after a dozen). Tim'sBio quotes the past liberally: Both the elegant spray of guitar from SWV's "Can We?" and the newborn coos from Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody?" make prominent cameos. But a helium-huffing cartoon alien who sounds like Cosmo D from Newcleus's "Jam on It" also pops into the mix periodically.
Even Timbaland's hardest acquaintances appear in such cartoonish context. "To My," sees tough guy Nas brag about opening his own "ASCAP and NASDAQ, plus a rotisserie," driving Beni Hana and Kenny Rogers out of business. Always happy to facilitate, Tim morphs to meet the needs of whomever he has on board, striving to make each of his guests comfortable. "Are you a pimp, nigga?" Jay-Z asks at one point. "Yeah, I'm a pimp, nigga," Tim chimes back obligingly, while rolling out an uncharacteristic gangsta synth to back Jay's jaundiced flow.
While defensive about his rhyming limitations ("They say Timbaland can't rap," he huffs at one point, "but I don't care, 'cause I make dope tracks"), Tim is confident about his main job here: to keep the show running smoothly. Having redefined the radio--not the clubs, not the streets--as the place where the action is, Timbaland creates a self-sustaining biosphere with his album: The public beats become private, and the private personal.
So, in addition to the guest spots mentioned above, Kelly Price gets to play her do-right woman in a funkier setting than usual, and harmony groups of both sexes happily croon atop brittle drum 'n' bass fault lines. In short, Bio is the maestro's ideal 70-minute sampling of R&B radio, and, throughout, Tim twists his dial with the detached bemusement of an extraterrestrial observing the way the human ego and libido can lead to silly fits of boasting and macking.
Of course, the freewheeling world Timbaland strives to create on record already exists on the airwaves. So, as we stand on the threshold of a pop utopia where program directors are performing a competent public service by merely doing their jobs, why bother sifting through Tim's mix for a masterstroke like the Spider-Man cribs in "Here We Come"? Here's why: because Tim tops this trick with a snippet from I Dream of Jeannie on the very next track, continually demonstrating himself to be a skilled pro as interested in his legacy as his longevity.
Spiking soundtracks with wittily crafted singles may pay the bills, but posterity belongs to album artists. After all, when we're ready to flip through his back pages, we sure as hell won't be putting on the Dr. Dolittle soundtrack. So, even if Bio isn't exactly a blockbuster, it beats Rhino to the punch and seals The Sound of 1998 in one convenient package.