TIMBALAND | TIMBALAND PRESENTS SHOCK VALUE (MOSLEY MUSIC GROUP/INTERSCOPE)
EL-P | I’LL SLEEP WHEN YOU’RE DEAD (DEFINITIVE JUX)
Timbaland and El-P move in separate circles–the former in the stratospheric heights of platinum pop-rap, the latter on the more down-to-earth indie hip-hop circuit–but they have an awful lot in common. Both men are rappers, producers, and label moguls, and in their respective scenes they occupy parallel niches: they’re trendsetters, talent hunters, and spokesmen for the rap community, or at least for their own ideas about it.
Their new albums could hardly be more different sonically, but El-P’s I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (released last month on his Definitive Jux label) and Timbaland’s Timbaland Presents Shock Value (released Tuesday by his Mosley Music Group, a subsidiary of Interscope) are both perfect examples of the producer record–a tradition that’s birthed classics like Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and duds like Pharrell’s In My Mind. Producer records are complicated, self-aggrandizing affairs meant to highlight not only their creators’ skills on the mike and behind the boards but their musical range and talent at coordinating a busload of guests–a requisite feature of the form.
So what are these two multitasking geniuses trying to say about themselves? If you ignore Timbaland’s lyrics–a good idea in general–and focus on his choice of collaborators, a few main talking points emerge. First, he is totally buds with Justin Timberlake. He is way down with rock bands: the Hives, Fall Out Boy, She Wants Revenge. And he sees a lot more in the R & B stylings of up-and-coming hook singer Keri Hilson than the average listener probably will–her boatload of generic cameos on Shock Value might best be described as a commercial tie-in with her own album, In a Perfect World, forthcoming on Timbo’s label.
Timbaland provides his guest stars with beats that complement their styles but rarely strays far from his own: the complex drum programming, the occasional world-music flourish, the borderline goofy and totally idiosyncratic details. (In the past he’s used sounds like a baby crying or a rhythm tapped out on a windowpane.) He meets 50 Cent and Tony Yayo on G-Unit turf, serving up chilly, minimal piano riffs, spooky harmonized vocals, and probably the simplest percussion tracks he’s ever laid down. He springboards off the Hives’ manic energy to make an unlikely but massively satisfying connection between garage rock and Bay Area hyphy. Only once does he go too far to accommodate a collaborator: “One and Only,” his joint with Fall Out Boy, sounds like an average Fall Out Boy track, albeit with heavily produced drums, interrupted by a bit of Timbaland’s rhyming. His attempt to muster a suitably emo rap delivery–which apparently means kinda shouting–is embarrassing in a deep, deep way, beating out Timberlake’s definitively unsexy attempt to talk a lady into a threesome on “Bounce” as the disc’s most cringeworthy moment.
For the most part, though, the full-on alt-rock takeover Timbo seems to be plotting is proceeding apace–anyone with melodic instincts strong enough to transform, for four magical minutes, the Interpol Lite of She Wants Revenge into something actually listenable can probably pull off anything. He’s already made a grand entrance into the adult-contemporary format on records by Timberlake and Nelly Furtado–his tracks with them here are basically a victory lap.
If Timbaland’s record is clearly intended to position him as a cross-genre pop Svengali, capable of doing for anyone what he did for Ginuwine and Missy Elliott, the message El-P seems to want to get across on I’ll Sleep is much simpler: that he’s a paranoid, fucked-up dude who is sick in the head.
Rather than extend his mastery to new genres, El-P is digging deeper into the one he practically invented. “Tasmanian Pain Coaster,” the lead track on I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, opens with unsettling sampled dialogue from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and ramps up into six minutes of noisy, claustrophobic boom-bap that are just as twisted as El-P’s rapping–his straining voice and the long stretches where he repeats the same rhyming sound, almost like a tic, lend more than a little psych-ward vibe to the proceedings.
El-P is by far a stronger and more expressive MC than Timbaland, whose monotone delivery hasn’t gotten more appealing with age, but he’s nowhere near as inventive a producer. The signature El-P sound, oppressively dense with apocalyptic beats and sci-fi drama, is definitely original–for a primer, listen to Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus, Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, and the new Mr. Lif record back-to-back–but none of its elements are new in and of themselves. The decontextualized soul samples, the concussive drum patterns, even the yowling Klaxons on “Smithereens”–you’ve heard them all a hundred times before. El-P’s obsession is dissecting those hip-hop tropes and infecting them with his corrosive worldview, a harsh corrective to the tiresome indie-rap meme of a bygone Golden Age of Hip-Hop. In his authoritarian dystopia, the MCs are all raving schizophrenics and the streets are swarming with cannibalistic zombie B-boys.
Like Timbaland, El-P does a little Rolodex flashing on his album: Chan Marshall, Trent Reznor, indie-rock journeyman Matt Sweeney, and members of the Mars Volta and Glassjaw all contribute to I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. But he uses the guests to complete his own vision, rather than meeting them halfway like Timbaland does. On your first listen through the hammering fear-of-flying song “Flyentology,” you’ll probably only notice Reznor’s vocals if you’ve already seen his name in the liner notes. And Marshall’s breathy singing on the closer, “Poisenville Kids No Wins / Reprise (This Must Be Our Time),” seems to be in there to make you think of Portishead, not Cat Power. The guest MCs fare better, sharing a little of El-P’s spotlight–though at least in the case of Aesop Rock and Cage, that’s probably because their tweaky personas fit right in with what he’s already doing. Listeners could be forgiven for concluding that indie rap has, at least in some circles, turned into a competition for the Craziest White Boy Award.
Between El-P and Timbaland, who made the better record depends on your metric. I’ll Sleep is a considerably more satisfying listen than Shock Value, with none of the deep drop-offs between Shock Value’s bubbly highs. But while Timbaland’s pop ambition can seem crass, he’s achieved his massive success with music more creative than anything El-P’s ever done. Despite its lack of focus, Shock Value makes clear that his ambition and his talent are running almost neck and neck. And even if it flops, like the other records under his own name have, he doesn’t need to care: as he boasts on “Give It to Me,” he still makes “half a mill a beat” as a producer for hire.
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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Timbaland, El-P/ photo by Albert Watson (Timbaland).