It's the New Style
R&B producers set their own trend.
By Michael McCall
FEBRUARY 9, 1998: As the two hottest producers in pop music, hip-hop masterminds Sean "Puffy" Combs and Tim "Timbaland" Mosley have more similarities than differences. They both like slow-baked grooves peppered with nervous, clickety-clack musical accents. They like catchy choruses that encourage listeners to hum along. They like singers who lay out raps in a modulated, rhythmic monotone. And they both like weaving a variety of voices into their songs, layering female and male vocals much the way they might couple a guitar and a piano.
For all their commonalities, though, they have one major difference Combs dumbs down his songs by making everything as obvious as possible, while Timbaland goes for the unexpected and the esoteric. Indeed, Combs has experienced a backlash from critics, who attack him for his assembly-line sound and for his overt reliance on backing tracks that co-opt familiar hits from the '70s and '80s. Timbaland, on the other hand, rarely uses snippets of old tunes, instead building tracks through his own manipulation of beats and sounds. When he does lift something from another source, the riff is buried so that it's not instantly recognizable, or it's used in a fresh and original way.
Still, it's what he does, and not how he does it, that makes Timbaland such an artistic force. His productions update the rump-bumping, bass-heavy Miami sound by putting it through a gauzy filter that draws on such current British innovations as trip-hop and drum 'n' bass. He takes a slow, languid rhythm and spices it with double-time cymbals, off-kilter piano, scratchy guitar strums, and electronic clicks and clacks.
Timbaland got his greatest creative boost from the irrepressible Missy Elliott, one of the few exciting new artists to enjoy popular success last year. He collaborated with Elliott on 1997's Supa Dupa Fly, which helped to open the door for slower grooves and for lyrics that transcend gangsta posturing and aggressive sexuality. The Virginia-raised Timbaland had already produced million-selling albums by Ginuwine, Aaliyah, and SWV prior to working with Elliott; but it was her multiplatinum debut that made him such a well-regarded property in pop-music circles.
Indeed, the most talked-about pop producers last year were probably Timbaland and Combs. The best way to suss the difference between these two is by comparing Elliott's hit "The Rain" (which uses a sample from Ann Peebles' R&B classic "I Can't Stand the Rain"), and Combs' tribute to the late Notorious B.I.G., "I'll Be Missing You" (built around the chorus of The Police hit "Every Breath You Take"). The former hit is full of unexpected musical and lyrical shifts, all of which add a joyful energy to the song as it progresses. "I'll Be Missing You" locks into one idea and stays there, droning on repetitively while rappers weave in and out of the groove. Both songs grab the listener's attention quickly, but Elliott's song actually grows on you, while Puff Daddy's cut wears thin. Anybody who's heard the latter song more than a dozen times knows this all too well.
Following up on their successes of the past year, each of the producers already has a new release for '98. Welcome to Our World is the first outing on which producer Timbaland takes co-billing with his rapping partner, Magoo. The pair pushes musical borders in every direction, cramming the leisurely grooves with a million outlandish ideas, all of them interesting.
Meanwhile, Combs returns with the latest in his line of musical protgs, Mase. Harlem World is the 20-year-old New York rapper's first full-length album; it's also the most tired outing yet by Combs' overexposed and overworked crew. Mase's monotonous mumble, distinctive on a track-by-track basis, simply grows numbing as the album wears on. Harlem World does feature a couple of interesting songs--the duet with Total on the love ballad "What You Want"--but most of it indulges Combs' worst tendencies.
The lyrics do little more than glorify consumerism and materialism--the rhymes constantly refer to a champagne lifestyle replete with luxury cars, fast women, designer duds, hot tubs, and expensive hotel suites. Worse yet, Mase shows none of the individual character that lifted the work of Combs' best-known collaborators, Notorious B.I.G. and Li'l Kim. Lacking B.I.G.'s benevolent gangsta persona or Kim's aggressive sexuality, Mase seems little more than a blank slate.
The rapper opens his album with "Do You Wanna Get $?," in which he rhymes "limo" with "sex symbol" before saying that he can't be bothered by those who don't own a lot of currency. The song is basically a response to critics who're disturbed by Mase's and Combs' obsession with money. "With all the money that we can make, why you cats want to playa hate?" Mase asks. Unable to understand that people simply might not respect their materialism, the rapper and his producer worry instead that they've been targeted by the have-nots--a theme that runs through "Lookin' at Me," "Wanna Hurt Mase?," "24 Hours to Live," "Niggaz Wanna Act," and "Will They Die 4 U?"
Curiously, the most interesting song on Harlem World is one that suggests Combs has been listening closely to Timbaland's innovations. "Take What's Yours" creates a sensual yet anxious groove out of a scratchy drum 'n' bass loop and sparse piano accents; indeed, it would sound right in place on Timbaland and Magoo's Welcome to Our World--except that it still lacks that record's sonic sophistication.
Timbaland knows he's one of the most-listened-to sound craftsmen around today. "How many songs you hear on the radio sound like mine?" he asks boastfully in the opening song, "Beep Beep." It's a double-edged question--yes, there are a lot of copycats out there, but none of them have quite mastered his style.
At the moment, both producers dominate urban radio. Mase has two songs ("Feel So Good," "What You Want") in the rap Top 10; Combs' studio work and Mase's voice also can be heard on Puff Daddy's "Been Around the World" and B.I.G.'s "Mo Money Mo Problems," both recent No. 1 hits. Meanwhile, Timbaland and Magoo's "Up Jumps Da Boogie" and "Luv 2 Luv Ya" have both been Top 10 hits on the R&B charts, and Timbaland's work can be heard on Elliott's "Sock It 2 Me" and "Beep Me 911," as well as on Total's hit "What About Us" and Playa's "Don't Stop the Music."
Truth is, Combs really is everywhere--on songs by Mariah Carey ("Honey") and Brian McKnight ("You Should Be Mine"), and on new mixes of songs by The Police ("Roxanne '97"), LL Cool J ("Phenomenon"), and his own Puff Daddy & the Family outfit ("It's All About the Benjamins"). Radio listeners are stuck listening to Combs right now, but hip-hop fanatics and up-and-coming MCs know that Timbaland is where it's at. Puffy might own the present, but the future will sound a lot more like Timbaland.
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