As tempting as it is to mythologize the Timbaland/Missy Elliott creative partnership as an instant worldbeating burst of avant-garde innovation, there was a time when they were merely up-and-coming practitioners of an already-popular sound. Sista, a group featuring Missy alongside fellow hip-hop singers LeShawn Shellmann, Chonita Coleman, and Radiah Scott, notched a little buzz with 1994 Elektra single “Brand New,” a woozy slow jam that was as rich on smooth vocal harmonies as it was off-kilter with loping, herky-jerky production. But it stalled at 84 on the R&B charts and scared Elektra off the prospect of putting out the album proper, so aside from some apocryphal circa-’94 German pressings, 4 All the Sistas Around da World only reached ears listening in hindsight more than twenty years later. If that makes it seem more like a historical exercise in tracking artistic evolution than a straight-up solid period-piece listen, don’t worry: this came from the DeVante Swing camp right in the midst of peak Jodeci, so the curious nature of hearing Missy before she stopped playing by the rules and Timbaland working on prototypes of himself is offset by their strong mid-’90s R&B chops and a hip-hop-rooted sound that plays to both coasts’ boom-bap/g-funk strengths.
Few developments sounded as open-endedly you can just do whatever thrilling as the cross-pollination of ideas surging through popular music in the mid-late ’90s. Hip-hop had not only begun to dominate pop, but had absorbed it to the point that it became one of the primary modes to engage with other genres — a prehistory of Clyde Stubblefield drum breaks and Bernie Worrell synths modulated into a futurist roots music that could underpin hardcore rap, smooth R&B, TRL-ready pop, and every permutation of techno and house that exploded into clubland during the decade.
This made an artist like Timbaland inevitable, and yet sometimes inevitabilities can still shock the hell out of you. From the perspective of a quarter-century-plus after his first big production gigs, it still seems like an inexplicable fluke of popular culture that his music only sounds “of its time” due to association; next to even the most macrosonic Max Martin and Dr. Dre smashes he shared chart space with, his idiosyncrasies overwhelm any memories of what the era actually felt like. Tim’s sound was rooted in a malleable, often experimental-feeling sense of being able to get away with all kinds of supposedly-unwieldy notions of extramusical melodic accents — birds, crickets, babies — and outlandish synth tones that turned the developments of ’80s boogie funk and ’90s club jams into hilarious noise. The easy to hear / hard to replicate trick was to make the stuttering bounce of his unpredictable yet supremely catchy rhythms so undeniably propulsive that every additional element picked up along the way made it all sound both bigger and more capable of overpowering momentum, like some kind of musical Katamari. That approach led to one of the most omnipresent sounds of the mid-late ’90s, and it’d stay that way for at least another decade. But unlike many of his groove-minded precedents in R&B/dance/pop crossover — Giorgio Moroder, Chic, Jam/Lewis, Teddy Riley — Timbaland’s style never spawned obvious market-flooding imitators, despite its polygenre versatility. The only artist who ever really had a chance to foist mediocre Timbaland-type beats on us was late-career Timbaland.
Like fellow Virginian era-defining producer Pharrell Williams — who was not only a teen-years musical collaborator, but his actual cousin — Timothy Mosley started out learning the rules of chart-busting R&B alongside an established mentor before he could rewrite them. After teaming up with a rapper/singer named Missy Elliott and making a few beats for her nascent R&B group Sista, he found himself part of a braintrust that Jodeci hitmaker DeVante Swing nurtured towards stardom. Tim’s early connects gave him a bit of leeway to learn and experiment under the aegis of a megahit crossover act, and his first breakthrough with Jodeci on Diary of a Mad Band deep cut “In the Meanwhile” reveals the then-21 Tim already deeply conversant in the kind of bass-heavy g-funk inflections that became a crucial transitional sound for R&B when new jack swing’s critical mass started to recede. And by the time Jodeci went on hiatus after The Show, the After Party, the Hotel in ’96, Tim and Missy had built up enough of a rep to weather it, relying on peers like Ginuwine and rising stars like Aaliyah who were eager to click with some of their more adventurous ideas. Since some of those more adventurous ideas — “Pony” and “If Your Girl Only Knew,” respectively — made high-number waves on the trans-Atlantic pop charts at the same time they perched atop the R&B singles ranks, that went a long way towards giving Tim, Missy and their clique enough clout to start really upending the conventional wisdom.
Most crucially, and a couple years or so ahead of his cousin Pharrell’s first big hits with the Neptunes, the conventional wisdom he challenged the most was the idea that hip-hop and R&B required disparate production styles. Granted, the South was already starting to prove you could make hip-hop without relying so heavily (or even all that much) on sampling, thanks in part to Organized Noize’s mid-’90s work with OutKast and Goodie Mob. And a couple years before that, Sean “Puffy” Combs executive-produced the debut album, What’s the 411?, that put Mary J. Blige in the position of embodying a hip-hop-driven strain of R&B. But Timbaland’s revelation — simple enough that it’s almost painfully obvious now — is that it’s all funk one way or another, and as long as you can get heads nodding and hips moving, everything else is up to the vocalist. Fatefully enough, when that vocalist was someone like Missy Elliott — equally conversant as a singer and a rapper, and deeply enthusiastic over the potential to hybridize those forms — it led to watersheds like debut Supa Dupa Fly and the four Timbaland-produced Missy albums which followed, which continually warped every traditionalist preconception of genrebound identity in ways that feel like a given now.
But Tim built from that already iconoclastic position to dig deeper: if you could erase the borders between hip-hop and R&B production, why not explore what they’re doing in the other clubs — including the ones that were bumping electronic dance music? If Timbaland wasn’t the first mainstream R&B/hip-hop hitmaker to really tap into the potential of techno, IDM, drum’n’bass, and the countless microgenres contained therein, he was at least the highest-profile one to treat that influence with an open mind and translate that into a major vibe shift. In the spirit of Hendrix psychedelicizing the blues and Stevie finding the soul in synthesizers, Tim made the idea of post-rave dance music sound like an influence that was both left-field and utterly integral. He’d dole that idea out sporadically across a few unlikely singles for a while, and while it might be a stretch to put ’98 joints like Jay-Z’s “Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99)” or Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody” in the same stylistic ballpark as Aphex Twin or Roni Size, those uptempo rhythms’ controlled freneticism at least made it a lot easier to imagine a DJ set with close-proximity room for all of it. (Hell, Nicole Wray’s Tim-produced “Make It Hot” got sampled by the Chemical Brothers for “Music:Response” a year later — game recognize knob-twiddling game.) And once he expanded his horizons even further into international music — including the MENA and Indian sounds that Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’” and Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” turned into global-village club jams — it was just further confirmation that hip-hop and R&B had become the renewed vanguard of pop-music creativity now that rock had hit its post-alternative creative doldrums.
A decade-plus after the ’96/’97 breakthrough that brought him to the upper echelon of superstar producers, Tim could have the ear of anyone he wanted or ever dreamed of working with. But somewhere along the line he lost the plot, overextending himself on eclectic pan-industry all-star hubris-displays like 2007’s Timbaland Presents Shock Value and ambitious but thin-stretched bids for further crossovers that ranged from diminishing returns (Nelly Furtado’s gem-laced yet deeply uneven Loose) to surprising letdowns (his character-deficient tracks for Björk’s Volta) to outright disasters (Chris Cornell’s omnidirectionally alienating pop-rock flail Scream). He’s been up-and-down ever since, and even if some of his later work has its moments, it’s arguable that he started to go astray with his late 2000s attempts to conquer pop on pop’s terms when he’d already done so on his. Maybe you can only sound like the future of everything for so long before you just want to bask in the relative knowability of the present moment.
Like many of his contemporaries, Timbaland’s identity was parceled out freely through singles and remixes, many of which capture his sensibility just as well as if not better than his album-length work does. (This playlist seems exhaustive — and at some points, exhausting — but every time you scroll, there’s a bunch of “oh, that one was a banger" revelations and reminders waiting for you.) And just like with the Neptunes, looking primarily at Timbaland through the majority-produced albums he did without fully accounting for his work outside them leaves the big picture incomplete while simultaneously illuminating how much inspiration and creativity his core group of collaborators instilled. That’s why this guide focuses on the handful of artists you could consider part of his inner circle. The one way that Timbaland’s music can really make you feel more nostalgic than future-shocked is by making you yearn for the sort of collective-effort unity that sprang from the core of artists he worked with from the ’90s onward — before we lost Aaliyah and Static Major, before Ginuwine strayed from the fold, before Missy went from regular welcome presence to behind-the-scenes hiatus. We had something special here — but fortunately, we can revisit it without feeling like we’re wallowing in an outdated aesthetic.
Nobody outside the studio knew it at the time, but this would be Missy Elliott’s last big hurrah with Timbaland before they mutually realized they couldn’t push each others’ creative limits any further. And maybe you can hear the strain in This Is Not A Test! if you listen a certain way; it does feel surprisingly caught in a holding pattern considering it’s got so many A-list guests (including some now persona non grata, though the logey ballad “Dats What I’m Talkin About” would be thoroughly skippable even if you swapped in someone less loathsome for R. Kelly). But just because the Missy/Tim partnership sounds like it downshifted into first gear doesn’t mean they can’t still get some juice just from revving the engine. The classic-rap trad feints of Under Construction run deeper while steering clear of the most obvious shell-toed cliches, with Tim nodding to dance music’s Kraftwerkian ancestry in hi-tech international-sound ways Arthur Baker never dreamed of. The skittery, skeletal electro of doppler-effect Jay-Z feature “Wake Up” is like the photonegative of Tim’s other great ’03 Hova beat (there’s no dirty shoulders in the cleanroom), “Pass That Dutch” does a ton with just a bunch of handclaps and bass throbs, and “Let It Bump” somehow does even more with even less — it’s minimalist instrumentation with maximum energy. And if those beats’ energy flags to mid-tempo a bit too often, Missy’s expressive character — insistently raunchy one moment, empathetic and dream-encouraging the next — still runs through one of the liveliest voices of the era.
There was, and remains, nothing quite like “Pony” so high on the charts — a performance by a beguilingly suave singer rendered into the monomania of an overcharged sexdroid thanks to Timbaland’s uninhibited Tex Avery-gone-Nicktoons hyperunrealism. (It sounds like Roger Troutman winning a burping contest, and yet here we all are thinking “yeah, that’s fuckin’ hot.”) But its lead-single status, both preceding the album Ginuwine… the Bachelor and accounting for its first-past-the-intro slot on it, cast a shadow so long that some of the other fascinating moments on it still qualify as legit surprises. Is it a gauntlet-throwdown to give your debut-album singer the opportunity to cover “When Doves Cry” a few years before peak ’80s nostalgia (and at the peak of Prince’s dispute with Warner Bros.), which necessitated turning its rhythm inside-out and overwriting its synthpop affinities with MoWax-adjacent trip-hoppy funk? Maybe, but you can hear Ginuwine feeling it to the level of seeming spiritually possessed. And can you get a slightly less audacious but still uncanny charge from the follow-up singles? The glitchy insistence of “Tell Me Do U Wanna” and its fluttering psychotropic horniness says yeah; the straightforward post-New Jack Swing headnods of “Holler” says but not too crazy; the burbling wires-crossed strangeness of “I’ll Do Anything / I’m Sorry” and its jitter-beat air of erotically charged remorse says I can change — and he does, because if he can adapt to Tim’s emergently bizarre yet directly effective future-club sounds, he can adapt to anything.
He’d never release anything that blew up quite like “Pony” ever again, but Ginuwine wasn’t technically a one-hit wonder — and definitely doesn’t sound like one on his sophomore album, even if the material’s far more driven by refinement than revolution. This time the iconoclastic cover choice swaps Prince out for Michael (a wall-of-voice assault on the slow-burning Off the Wall lament “She’s Out of My Life”), and a series of interludes add a quasi-verite soapiness that hints at the roguishness beneath the singer’s surface. But the balancing act between giddy clubland lothario (“All Nite All Day”; “I Know”) and emotionally vulnerable lover (“I’m Crying Out”; “So Anxious”) is the draw just like last time. Timbaland’s beats sound like they’ve come from one of his less outlandish sessions — the sawtooth thrum and clavinet-bass lurch of “What’s So Different?” is as weird as it gets, and an outlier to boot, as the production hinges more on the kind of no-nonsense sinuous rhythmic fundamentals that are meant to avoid overshadowing the vocals. (That said, get a load of what Tim does to Freddy Mercury’s voice from “Flash’s Theme” for “Do You Remember” — dude’s going just a bit past the edge of panic with that one). And Tim can afford to play it closer to the vest when the headliner’s voice is a hell of an instrument in itself; hearing him spar with Aaliyah on “Final Warning” is all the proof you need of that.
If Supa Dupa Fly is a slow, deep toke and Da Real World is a series of liquor-tinged breaths through clenched teeth, Missy Elliott’s third album is the kind of euphoric hyperventilating that usually takes MDMA to fully experience. The key is the intersection of the Missy/Timbaland musical partnership respectively going out of their heads with what could be characterized as innovators’ hubris, or would be if there was any evidence they were more conceited than it all warranted. Instead, their most outlandish ideas stick with you because they’re sincerely committed to at a level that even the most self-aware successor-gen hyperpopper has yet to pull off without a wink or an asterisk. What else to make of “Get Ur Freak On,” where Missy leaves no syllable perfunctory and Timbaland transplants turbo-bhangra into drum’n’bass’s “Amen” break backbone? And that’s just the biggest conflagration in one of the most explosively front-loaded rap/R&B/club/ur-groove records of its decade, where you also have to contend with a dose of brazenly libidinous Meth-and-Red-laced post-disco (“Dog In Heat”), a barrage of mutant-junglist dance beats that split the difference between ’95 Metalheadz and ’75 Junie Morrison (“Scream a.k.a. Itchin’”), the most funkily disorienting retrofitting of an Israeli folk tune imaginable (“Lick Shots”), and the giddy sex-marathon demand “One Minute Man,” where the “g” in g-funk stands for galactic. There’s gold in the deep cuts, too, like the Eve-featuring, brain-throbbing analog-oid house jam “4 My People” that sounds almost as much like Basement Jaxx as Basement Jaxx’s actual remix did. An album so ahead of its time that the early ’80s boogie throwback “Old School Joint” still makes Silk Sonic sound mannered by comparison, Miss E… So Addictive thrives because its architects sound so liberated — artistically, budgetarily, sexually, narcotically, you name it — by the possibilities of a better future we’re still waiting for.
Aaliyah’s sophomore release was a breakthrough for the simple yet hard-to-perfect reason that she was not only assured beyond her years as a singer — more concerned with emotional nuance than melismatic acrobatics — but capable of commanding any R&B subgenre that was thrown at her. Diane Warren ballads (“The One I Gave My Heart To”), Treach-hooked boom-bap/g-funk hybrids (“A Girl Like You”), trans-generational throwback nods to hitmaker-slash-auteur predecessors (Marvin on “Got to Give It Up”; the Isleys on “Choosey Lover (Old School/New School)”) — it’s your classic teenaged phase-shifting identity search, except it’s one that reveals how valid all those phases’ paths could be. The most promising path, of course, was the one with writer/producers Missy Elliott and Timbaland, who peak early with the title cut by giving her a distinctively eccentric take on club-steeped, trip-hop-adjacent production (that cricket loop!). Further single pulls like the neo-soul/trip-hop hybrid “Hot Like Fire,” the gelatinous funk of “If Your Girl Only Knew,” and the no-frills slow jam “4 Page Letter” don’t hint quite as clearly towards the staggering innovation of subsequent collabs like “Are You That Somebody” or “We Need a Resolution,” but they still sound like the album’s future-focused heart, and smartly foreground Aaliyah’s vocal depth in a way that makes them feel utterly complete — and those later classics predestined.
If Supa Dupa Fly was enough to stoke curiosity in listeners over the beatmaker behind the headliner, Timbaland and Magoo’s first album, following hot on its heels, might not have been enough to make them forget how singular Missy was on the mic. (Tim’s serviceable if almost defiantly basic in how laidback and flow-over-lyrics his style is; Magoo’s voice is basically “what if Q-Tip was 25% more nasal, way more stiff, and given to punchlines that were needlessly crass even during the Peak Edgelord late ’90s?”) But as a portfolio for a braintrust giddy with promise, loaded with ideas, and in tight with a lot of cool friends, Welcome to Our World is the kind of invitation worth taking just because it proves you can be unpretentious without actually being unambitious. Maybe that’s thanks to their long-term alliances (Missy hilariously vulgar on “Up Jumps Da’ Boogie”; Aaliyah starting to hit her grown-folks stride as a deep-soul visionary on “Man Undercover”). It could also be Tim’s by-this-point second-nature ability to make even the simplest hooks into catalysts for rhythmic complexity — yes, even the Knight Rider theme on “Clock Strikes (Remix)”; check the snares on that one. But as much as the headliners can careen from accessibly unspectacular to just plain dumb on the mic, they always pull off just enough panache to justify it. For all Timbaland & Magoo’s relative shortcomings in that department, it helps that there’s still the more-than-occasional moment of actual OK that shit was goofy but I laughed punchline raps. When Tim declares on “Peepin’ My Style” that “I can make you dance, and shake your butt, and wiggle/When it’s hot outside I eat popsicles,” you might not put him on Nas’s level, but hey, Nice & Smooth would be proud.
After a heartfelt intro that features both some of the deepest soul-searching any artist has ever christened a hotly-anticipated record with and one of the most unfortunate “if we only knew” lines ever spoken on a rap record, period (“You don’t see Bill Gates and Donald Trump arguing with each other ‘cause both of them got paper”), Missy (re)builds her style off an effort to reconcile her vision of hip-hop’s futurist drive and its eroding but never-forgotten traditions. And as Timbaland bolsters that vision by conflating old school and new school into his own personal grad school — the thesis being the paradoxical space-age throwback of “Work It,” recognizably vintage-analog in its components and ’80s-baby in its Blondie/Run-D.M.C./Rock Master Scott references but too weird for any point that preceded their late ’90s emergence (and full of so many hilarious declarations of feminine sexual enthusiasm that Cardi and Megan could’ve caught origin-story epiphanies). Other rearview nods to first-wave Wu-Tang (Method Man feature/demi-cover “Bring the Pain”), all-coasts boom-bap fundamentals (Hova indulging his nostalgia on “Back in the Day”), and “Double Dutch Bus” lyrical playground games (Ludacris-laced seesaw funk “Gossip Folks”) are offset by Missy and Tim’s continuation of using their respective literal and behind-the-boards voices to stretch sounds to the breaking point of overload. Though at this point, the inebriated-rubberband slink of “Slide” and the “No Scrubs”-gone-cyberfunk kiss-off “Ain’t That Funny” sound like welcome characteristic trademarks as much as they do deliberate envelope-pushing experiments.
Big epochal shifts in pop music are supposed to feel like monumental takeovers — the guard not only changing but being forcefully usurped, wars declared on old ways and styles until a clean break with tradition can be fully made. And yet the album that revealed Missy and Timbaland as the architects of an entirely new and unexpected approach to both hip-hop and R&B has so many routes into its world that it feels less like something being overthrown and more like an abrupt evolutionary sidestep into an alternate universe. Funk and soul tradition still linger in Tim’s future-fixated sound, but as talismans for next-phase evolutions; the Ann Peebles homage that provides the album its titular cool is just the most direct reward of a lineage that went upstream from Memphis to Minneapolis via Mothership. (And then beyond there to destinations unknown; what musical tradition did that bird-warbling android-beatbox hydraulic-booty “Beep Me 911” groove even come from?) And Elliott’s emerging presence as a new kind of double-threat singer-slash-rapper rides on her nearly unmatched ability to not only strike the ideal balance between pure lyricism and absurdist chaos, but make those elements feel codependent. Perfectly situated somewhere between club-system floor-filler and headphone stoner symphony, few albums of its time have felt so amazingly declarative in its “this is the future” turf-stake while also being so relatively chill and joyously welcoming.
Of course Supa Dupa Fly wasn’t a fluke, but Missy and Timbaland busting their respective asses to prove this sure didn’t hurt the cause. Part of that’s the megastar cosigns and the stylistic steel-sharpening-steel that comes with a bigger-better-broader collection of guest spots, whether that means Missy hanging back to play oh no, she’s crazy too minor foil to Eminem’s bad-widdle-boy tryhard misogyny (“Busa Rhyme”), giving Aquemini-momentum Big Boi a powerful these men ain’t shit case to riff off (“All N My Grill”), or laying down million-dollar harmonies with Beyoncé as the latter’s first real test run for 21st Century dominance (“Crazy Feelings”). But just like Tim’s beat-burble drops in silicon string sections to ratchet up the combat-soundtrack drama, Missy spits like an embattled, newly-crowned monarch, lyrics blistering with bravado and threats that overstate their own toughness but get you geeked about it in the process anyways. It could just be the catharsis that comes from letting out some anticipated-followup stress energy, but it’s hard to think of better release valves than a maniacal Redman sparring session (“Dangerous Mouths”), a waist-winding dancehall call-to-arms (Lady Saw feature “Mr. D.J.”), and the everlasting boast track “She’s a Bitch” — an all-timer in showing off the nunchaku-twirling momentum of her flow.
Timbaland’s first “proper” solo album is one of those “auteur producer takes the spotlight” joints that’s never hesitant to cede center stage. Maybe it’s because he spends just enough time in it to make it apparent his most interesting ideas are behind the boards. But he seems to know his limitations as a rapper despite his why-not urge to do it anyways, and he saves the best of his beats for his guests whether they’re joined at the hip (Missy, Magoo, Aaliyah, and Static Major all figure prominently) or just stopping in to get a top-dollar sound to geek out over. (Nas and Jay-Z are both let loose to strong effect, but the real coup here is a debuting Ludacris, already doing hilariously improbable Silly Putty-stretching flows on “Fat Rabbit”.) The funny thing is that a lot of these beats are weird in ways that Timbaland wouldn’t often return to. The sawed-off barrelhouse piano on “To My,” the ’60s TV rerun nostalgia two-fer of Spidey-theme cha-cha bounce “Here We Come” and Jeannie-dreaming “Wit’ Yo’ Bad Self,” and the minor-key chords that add a head-tilting vertigo to the otherwise satiny sleekness of Playa-featuring slow jam “Birthday” are just the most startling ones on an album commandeered by a producer out to prove he can, no, must get weirder.