We gave it a B
The catchiest song on the Timbaland’s Shock and Awe album is ”Give It to Me,” the percolating club hit featuring guest vocals by Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado — although to call it a song isn’t quite precise. It’s a victory lap. ”We missed you on the charts last week,” Timberlake sings, taunting less successful stars. In 2006, the Billboard charts became the personal playground of Timberlake and Furtado, who had the good sense to team up with Timbaland, the Virginia Beach-based creator of planet Earth’s most otherworldly beats. Timbaland’s achievement over the past decade is hard to overstate. His ingenious, shape-shifting production style — with its odd rhythmic accents, synthesizer bleats, and clever use of silence and space — made hit radio safe for sonic avant-gardism, helped collapse the distinctions between rap and R&B and pop, and propelled the careers of his early muses Aaliyah and Missy Elliott. But with Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds and Furtado’s Loose, Timbaland moved to a new level of commercial dominance, and Shock Value is above all an exercise in gloating — a chance to celebrate, and consolidate, his status as global pop impresario.
Shock Value has the loose, occasionally slack feeling of a mixtape — a clearinghouse for the spare beats Timbaland had lying around the studio, with lots of guest appearances by famous friends. He certainly draws an A-list crowd. In addition to Justin and Nelly, Shock Value features cameos by Elliott, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, and Elton John, who provides the wistful ivory-tickling on the ballad ”2 Man Show.” There are some ambitious, not particularly successful experiments with rock, notably ”One and Only,” a mess of a collaboration with Fall Out Boy. But Timbaland’s good stuff — ”Oh Timbaland,” ”Bounce” (with Timberlake, Dre and Elliott), and half a dozen others — is really good: music that moves the hips and stirs the head. Every bar or two, these songs erupt with sonic surprises — a sleazy blast of Farfisa organ, a ripple of Latin percussion, synth lines that sound like a revving lawn mower, a foghorn blast, an Xbox game gone haywire.
Some hip-hop purists have been grumbling about Timbaland’s new direction — his naked ambition to step from behind the mixing board and become a Diddy-style rapper-producer-mogul. It’s true that Timbaland isn’t much of an MC. He looks a little silly with his newly pumped biceps, and he sounds even sillier on a song about ménages á trois. But the 2007-model Timbaland is something new in hip-hop: an aspiring tycoon and subpar rapper who also happens to be a musical genius — the closest thing 21st-century pop has to Duke Ellington. As shameless megalomaniacs go, we could do a lot worse.