Has Timbaland become a hack?

Has Timbaland become a hack?

Has Timbaland become a hack?

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Nov. 28 2007 1:43 PM

Farewell, Quiet Riot

Plus: Has Timbaland become a hack?

Kevin DuBrow. Click image to expand.
Kevin DuBrow

Kevin DuBrow, the lead singer of Quiet Riot, who died Sunday at age 52, will be remembered as a guy who was in the right place at the right time, with the right song. The place was the Sunset Strip; the time was late summer, 1983; the song was "Cum On Feel the Noize," a raucous party tune originally recorded by British glam-rockers Slade, which Quiet Riot inflated into the anthem that first took pop-metal to the top of the Billboard charts. Quiet Riot distilled the pop-metal formula, toning down the darkness and nihilism of progenitors like Black Sabbath while preserving the decibel levels, adding poodle hair, spandex, gratuitous guitar histrionics, lots of salaciousness, and, above all, melody. Other, better bands—Mötley Crüe, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi—would ride the tide to superstardom, but Quiet Riot got there first, when "Cum On Feel" propelled the band's third album, Metal Health, to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200, for one week exactly, in November of '83. That success was due in no little part to DuBrow's vocals, a raspy yowl, and to his bug-eyed stage presence—more in the Alice Cooper-lunatic tradition than the Robert Plant sex-god vibe that others would exploit. "Cum On Feel" was DuBrow's supreme moment. (And, let's be frank, it was more Slade's triumph than his.) But Quiet Riot's originals were a blast, too. Watch this vintage performance of "Metal Health," with DuBrow stalking the stage in a striped shirt and tight leopard-print pants. "I want it louder/ More power/ I'm gonna rock ya 'til it strikes the hour," Dubrow sings, a goofy but not inaccurate boast.

Timbaland's Diminishing Returns

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What happens when a genius spreads himself too thin? We're finding out these days, as beat-maker extraordinaire Timbaland, popular music's most reliable mind-blower for more than a decade, continues his bid to produce every song by every living recording artist. Timbaland started his current run in grand fashion, emerging in 2006 from a hiatus—evidently spent as BALCO's artist in residence—with blockbuster albums for Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake. The best moments on those records were vintage Timbaland—utterly odd, utterly infectious songs built from terse melodic hooks and twitchy rhythms. And the Furtado and Timberlake partnerships made sense: Timbaland's finest work has arisen from close, long-term partnerships, and Nelly and Justin seemed like Tim's latest muses, the successors to Ginuwine, Aaliyah, and Missy Elliott. But the success of Furtado's Loose and Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds whetted Timbaland's appetite for pop moguldom, and he has spent the months since on a promiscuous tear, releasing a smash solo CD, Timbaland Presents Shock Value (featuring Elton John, Fall Out Boy, and old friend Elliott, among many others), and producing dozens of records for rappers, rockers, pop divas, and virtually everyone else: Bjork, Rihanna, Diddy, Fabolous, M.I.A., Nicole Scherzinger, 50 Cent, Chingy, Mary J. Blige, you name it. Timbaland has also done tracks for the forthcoming Ashlee Simpson album, for Natalie Cole, for his protégé Keri Hilson, for Britpop crooner Robbie Williams. In 2008, another Timbaland solo record is planned, and he is rumored to be manning the mixing board for both Madonna's and Beyoncé's next CDs. Surely a Timbaland-Emanuel Axcollabo can't be far behind.

The work rate is impressive—but what about the work? As Timbaland's fellow superproducers the Neptunes learned a couple of years back, it pays to be a bit sparing with your beats: Make too many records, and the quality will start to suffer. In Tim's case, the songs haven't gotten bad, exactly, just dispiritingly familiar and dull. The shock value of Timbaland's music—the jolts and revelations his songs have routinely delivered—has diminished, leaving behind a series of tics. The latest evidence is his production on the new Duran Duran album, Red Carpet Massacre. It would seem to be a match made in heaven, the funk-wise '80s party boys joining forces with a shameless '80s-fetishist rhythm-genius. But the tracks are formulaic. "Nite Runner" is paint-by-numbers Timbaland: a sluggish Prince-style synth groove with a smattering of percussion clatter, a falsetto chorus from Timberlake, and, worst of all, a rap by the producer himself. Like all of Tim's work on Red Carpet Massacre, it's catchy. But where's the weirdness? On "Nite Runner," Timbaland swathes the chorus vocals in a heavy distortion-fuzz, an eerie sound, for sure. But that sound was last year's innovation. It's a telltale sign of fatigue: Timbaland's bringing "SexyBack" back.

Winter Ball

How do New York's young Latino baseball stars spend their off-season? Judging by "Pa' La Tumba," the new video from the veteran reggaeton rapper and producer Héctor El Father, the answer is: poolside, possibly intoxicated, definitely surrounded by women. The video features appearances by the Mets' Jose Reyes and the Yankees' Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera, who are shown dancing and lip-synching, with bling flashing, alongside Héctor, boxer Ivan Calderon, and other celebrities. These cameos caused a small sensation in the Mets blogosphere—an online community with which your correspondent has a certain familiarity—with hysterical message-board posters slamming Reyes for spending too much time at pool parties and too little in the batting cage. But how could anyone within earshot of "Pa' La Tumba" not want to party? It begins like a typical Héctor track—with menacing singsong chanting over tolling piano chords. And then the beat kicks in: a boom-chicka-boom merengue rhythm, far speedier and more exuberant than standard reggaeton, with horns honking and groaning above the rapper's nasal boasts and exhortations. It's the best dance song I've heard in 2007; and it's sure to be heard blasting out of the Yankee and Shea stadium PA systems come April 2008.

Jody Rosen is critic at large for T: The New York Times Style Magazine.