Timbaland shares untold stories behind songs with Missy Elliott, Madonna, and Beyoncé
A version of this story originally appears in Entertainment Weekly’s Untold Stories issue, available to buy right here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
The genre-crushing producer revolutionized pop and hip-hop in the aughts by teaming up with some of the genre’s biggest icons. Now, Timbaland — who is a mentor and executive producer on Lifetime’s talent competition show The Pop Game, which airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET — spills his secrets of minting musical gold with Missy, Madonna, Beyoncé, and more.
Missy Elliott, “Work It”
More than a decade before Kiiara’s and Selena Gomez’s chopped-up vocals were dominating radio, Elliott had us all wondering what a fremme neppa venette was. The rapper’s tongue-twisting 2002 hit didn’t come easy. “We cut the song at least five times before it was right,” Timbaland recalls. “She had different lyrics, different [flows], but I just didn’t care for it.” Only on the last attempt did Elliott have the idea to take the lyrics “I put my thang down, flip it and reverse it” and, well, reverse them. “That’s something that she did creatively,” says the producer. “When she came back and played it for me [backward], I was like, ‘That’s the one.'”
Nelly Furtado, “Promiscuous”
Furtado was initially hesitant about recording this sexually charged duet. “I told her, ‘You can’t be that same Nelly Furtado laying on the grass playing with birds,'” Timbaland says. “She was like, ‘Oh no, Tim, I’m not doing that!’ I told her, ‘I’m not saying exploit yourself, I’m saying showcase yourself.'” The track was one of the last songs to be completed for Furtado’s Loose LP. She and Timbaland finished it right before executives from Furtado’s label arrived to hear how the material was shaping up. “The moment of truth was playing it back with everyone in the room,” Timbaland says. The label loved it — and chose it as the record’s first U.S. single.
Duran Duran, “Falling Down”
Collaborating with the ’80s pop icons for their Red Carpet Massacre album was a chaotic process, Timbaland recalls. With four band members recording vocals and various instruments, “getting the song done [was a challenge],” he says. “We were traveling, [so] there were a lot of moving parts.” Still, Timbaland relished the opportunity to pick the brains of some of his idols: “I’m asking questions like ‘So when you made this song “The Reflex”…’ It was more of a survey for me. They’re one of my favorite groups.” (Not everyone remembers the experience of making the album so fondly: Bassist John Taylor called the project “a f—ing nightmare” in a 2011 interview, citing disagreements with Sony, though Nick Rhodes said he was “glad we made that album, because in time I think it will stand up.”)
Madonna, “4 Minutes”
The Queen of Pop brought the heat when she teamed up with Timbaland and co-producer Pharrell Williams for her Hard Candy LP — and not just metaphorically. Madonna has been known to turn down the air-conditioning at concerts and during recording sessions over concerns that colder, drier air could affect her voice. “The studio was hot,” Timbaland remembers. But apart from her high-temp preferences, there was no diva behavior in the booth. “She was down-to-earth Madonna,” he says. “She’s just brutally honest about a lot of stuff: ‘I’m doing this, I’m not going to sing that.’ She’s very matter-of-fact but still very fun and loving and into her craft.”
Queen Bey didn’t just recruit top talent for her self-titled album — she put them all in a room together, a rare feat in today’s pop landscape. “It was one of music’s biggest events that was never televised,” Timbaland says of working alongside Beyoncé, Jay Z, Justin Timberlake, and others. Their creative process was loose and organic: “Yoncé,” the intro to the song “Partition,” began when Timberlake started banging on a bucket. (Contrary to internet rumors, Timbaland says, a full-length version of “Yoncé” doesn’t exist.) Still, the secretive star cut her vocals away from the group. Says Timbaland, “She goes in her own room with the engineer and shuts the door.”
Timbaland is also readying his first studio album in eight years, which is due later this year.