Most famous for his work with regular muses such as Missy Elliot, Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake, Timbaland - AKA Tim Mosley - has seamlessly slid from rap contributor to solo artist to world-class producer and back to artist again.
Hero or villain, auteur or prankster, this man has been behind (and, like it or not for the artist involved, often in front of) some of the most ear-grabbing productions of the last twenty years.
So, let’s skin dive into our fricka-fricka-five fave Timbo tracks that every producer should listen to…
1. Aaliyah - More Than A Woman
Let’s start at the top. It’s this track’s opening moments and unlikely, repeating Arabic riff that truly elevates it to greatness. Mesmerising, hypnotic and unconventional in both timing and tuning, it grabs the ear with Aaliyah’s smooth, simple vocal relegated to second fiddle with the staccato shakers, güiro programming and nasty buzzing bass acting as mere meze on one of Timbaland’s tastiest and most memorable hits.
More Than A Woman is a track that proves that one good idea can fuel an entire fire as - musically - the intro, verses and chorus are all essentially the same eight-bar Akai MPC loop, repeated for the track’s 3:49 duration.
But what of that riff? Of course, it’s a sample, and not a particularly clever or sneaky one at that. In fact, it’s an entire eight-bar lift from the opening eight bars of Syrian vocalist Mayada El Hennawy’s track Alouli Ansana. Not a cheeky take from the break or a couple of drum hits here and there; basically, the opening blast (and entire six-second heart) of More Than A Woman is laid bare in the first six seconds of El Hennawy’s original from 1993.
There are two schools of thought here: Either, A) Timbaland is a genius for spotting this stunning non-western earworm, and appropriating it in such a powerful way (the original track throws it out at the start and then never returns to it once for its entire 11:03 running time; Or B) Timbaland owes somebody a great debt of… gratitude… as – at the time of writing – More Than A Woman is credited to Timbaland and Stephen ‘Static Major’ Garrett as writers with no mention of El Hannaway and team.
But, despite its musical ingenuity, this song is perhaps better known as the first to be released after Aaliyah was tragically killed in an air crash when her overloaded Cessna 402B - laden with the pilot, eight passengers and their equipment - crashed shortly after takeoff from the Bahamas. The entourage had just finished their part in the video for (subsequent hit) Rock The Boat with video giant Hype Williams and had chartered the small plane to get back to Florida a day earlier than planned.
More Than A Woman rightly soared to become her biggest hit in the UK, reaching number one in 2001, but disappointingly, stalled at only number 25 in the States.
2. Ginuwine - Pony
If there was ever a track that’s genuinely not ‘pony’… it’s Pony by Ginuwine. This deeply freaky R&B jam is popularly recognised as Timbaland’s first true production credit, and what a way to part the curtains and make an entrance.
Full credit to one Elgin Lumpkin on vocals here (yup, that’s the man’s name) as without his grinding passion and triple-entendre delivery this leaden, thumping, tube-sock-of-concrete might have gone off half-cocked. It’s plodding, it’s repetitive and its vocal is mixed too low, but it’s so magnetic, entrancing and full of sauce that listening too closely might make your clothes evaporate. Sorry to break it to you, but this song is not about a small horse.
Today it’s best known as ‘that song from Magic Mike’, the hit movie from 2012, but back in 1996 it was the first (audacious and sex-cellent) single from ex-Swing Mob member Ginuwine, a close friend of Timbaland and Missy Elliot who was looking for a hit.
The track features a slow dub tempo and heavy bass; much later, Timbaland would claim in interviews that dubstep was in fact his invention and that he began creating the sound as far back as the ponderous Pony. However, it’s the talkbox (note: not vocoder) element of that bass that’s the song’s most memorable hook.
This old skool R&B tool involves blasting a synth sound down a tube held in the player’s mouth. The resultant tone can then be sculpted by changing mouth shape, essentially replacing the familiar sound of vocal cords with… whatever you like. It’s a short sample of such mouthplay at work here, looped and repeated for the entire track.
Ginuwine and Timbaland went on to work together on Ginuwine’s second album - 100% Ginuwine - but drifted apart thereafter, with the vocalist teaming up with the likes of R. Kelly and P. Diddy for future hits.
They were set to reunite for the 2010 single Get Involved (featuring Missy Elliot and Timbaland, of course) but Timbaland failed to turn up for the video shoot, leading to the record company similarly losing interest and the single being shelved for release in the States. Instead of smash status it received a limited release in Europe with an animated video in lieu. However, in interviews, both say that they have since chatted over Twitter and so the pair’s beef may now be buried…
Oh, and if you Google ‘the r&b burping song’ this is the top hit.
3. Madonna and Justin Timberlake – 4 Minutes
After flirting with booming military beats and drumming on previous productions (see Nelly Furtado’s Maneater which criminally skips our five) Timbo went full-on marching band for this rabble rousing re-invention from the queen of the reboot.
Madonna, always on the lookout for her next hook, came gunning for Timbaland after loving Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds album and seeking a portion of the same. The result was the pop/hip-hop/electro infused Hard Candy, her last album with Warner Bros, bringing to a close an incredible 25 years of hits for the label.
After co-writing with Pharrell Williams for the album it wasn’t too far of a step to draft in Timberlake for writing and vocal duties with old buddy Timbaland in tow for production. Funnily enough, this was Madonna’s second ever duet, the first being with Timberlake’s ex Britney Spears (Me Against The Music).
The beats come hard and fast via an Akai MPC3000, and the parping horns - while evoking images of a college band striding purposefully across a football pitch - are all Yamaha Motif (the big go-to ‘board for early noughties hip-hop hitmakers). It was also around this time that Timbaland was besotted with the NeKo workstation, a curious PC-in-a-keyboard hybrid that failed to catch on, but can be seen in behind-the-scenes footage from Timbo’s sessions from the time.
Open Labs - the maker of the NeKo - was so tight with Timbaland that it even produced a Timbaland Special Edition that came with the Ensoniq Urban Legends presets collection - by special request from Timbaland himself and beloved by hip-hop producers - lifted from their ASR, EPS and Mirage samplers. Yours for $4799 in 2008.
The song was a global smash and reached number three in the US, delivering Madonna her 37th top-ten single, breaking the record previously held by Elvis Presley. It hit number one in the UK.
Ironically, although the video and album version brilliantly wind to their conclusions bang on four minutes [removes hat], the single version ditches Timbaland’s ‘only got fricka-fricka-four minutes’ intro to close at 3minutes 9seconds [puts hat back on].
Worth noting that Timberlake was rewarded with the full Madonna ‘mononym’ treatment on the sleeve and the track is credited to simply ‘Madonna & Justin’.
4. Justin Timberlake - Cry Me A River
It’d be tempting to side-step this monster on account of it being too obvious; Timberlake’s 2002 career-altering global smash album Justified is, after all, a modern classic, sparkling with top tunes and exemplary production. It’s the album that Michael Jackson should have made. Of all the goodness on board, we’re plumping for second single Cry Me A River (released after the Neptunes-produced lead Like I Love You).
As part of boyband NSync, Timberlake was a shining star, invariably snagging lead vocals and acting as the perfect foil to production genius Max Martin and team’s pop powerhouse. But after becoming “too big,” Timberlake sought to begin again, ditching the band’s manufactured baggage and going solo while “putting the music first”.
That music was to come via Scott Storch - a master of the Yamaha Motif and later Korg Kronos - who’d enjoyed hits with Dr Dre (co-writing the mighty Still D.R.E), Terror Squad, 50 Cent, Chris Brown, Beyoncé and more. The track is laden with piano and synth, plus Timbaland’s Akai MPC beats and sampled acapella beatboxing mouth-work from Timberlake.
The song - a scorching burn on ex-girlfriend Britney Spears - is credited to Storch, Timberlake and Timbaland as writers and Timbaland as sole producer, but time has muddied the waters as to the track’s true credits, with Storch and Timbaland openly claiming more input to the other’s detriment. Most famously on Nelly Furtado’s Give It To Me (from Timbaland’s excellent Shock Value album) where Timbo sings that he’s ‘a real producer’ while Storch is ‘just a piano man’.
Storch - with multiple hits from multiple artists - could certainly claim otherwise but his career took an odd turn, as he burned through $30 million in less than six months and was arrested for grand theft auto after failing to return a leased Bentley in 2009. He officially filed for bankruptcy in 2015.
Fortunately, Storch is still making music today; do check out his unmissable How Scott Storch Makes Beats series on YouTube, Part 7 being a particularly effective intro to the man’s oeuvre. Nope. No idea why the engineer is wearing a gasmask.
5. Chris Cornell – Scream
Yup. We’re going there. The Bee Gees were a folk band before they were the kings of disco (and a barbershop quartet before that). Depeche Mode sported bow ties and tiny synths before they packed out US stadiums as new-wave goth gods. Taylor Swift fled the country scence, Damon Albarn went hip-hop, and The Jam birthed The Style Council. So why can’t Chris Cornell, the lead vocalist with Soundgarden, make a pop R&B album with Timbaland?
We can only wonder at the behind-the-scenes hand-wringing and fraught listening in at Interscope that must have gone on as Cornell’s Scream took shape, and there are moments when the image of Cornell himself listening to this and nodding along with a smile seem as unlikely as… the guy who sang Black Hole Sun making an album with Timbaland.
To be honest, Scream, the album, isn’t as fricka-fricka-freakin’ awful as you might well have heard, and the title track lead single is easily the most comfortable fit for Cornell’s legendary tone when placed alongside the workstation piano-plus-strings and tom ‘n’ bongo assault of a de rigeur Timba-jam. It’s as accomplished a song and as slick a production as anything Timbaland has crafted with Timberlake. However, it seems that hearing Cornell fronting out Timbo’s familiar frickin’ BV’s on track two, Time, had his fans reaching for the off switch rather earlier than planned.
Full credit and respect to Timbaland throughout, by the way. Any other producer less confident in their class might have ‘toned it down a bit’ (or, more accurately, ‘turned it up a bit’) when confronted with rewriting rock history, but Timbo delivers pure Tim-beats, albeit with a nod to more real bass and more real percussion, and his move to segue each track into the other, concept album-style, is just a little bit genius.
Meanwhile, rock guitar is dodged almost entirely, its bulk usually replaced with buzzing fat synth layers, despite the (heavy metal) brickbats that would inevitably be hurled as a result. And they were.
At first glance, Scream appears to be Cornell’s biggest chart hit, hitting number 10 Stateside in its first week, but it’s worth noting that it dropped to number 65 in its second once his fans had actually heard it. Meanwhile, it peaked at 70 in the UK.
Opinion remains divided on Cornell’s subsequent ‘Rock Version’ releases of both Never Far Away and Long Gone from the album. While winning back some disgruntled fans, for us, it rather takes the edge off the whole daring endeavour.
Cornell went on to rejoin Soundgarden in 2010, but tragically chose to take his own life after a performance in 2017.
Reeeemix! Your essential further listening just Timba-landed
Nelly Furtado – Maneater
Now everybody look at me - not part of MusicRadar’s top five!? Yes, it’s a hair-tossing belter of a track and a star performer from Furtado’s consistently excellent Loose album (also produced by Timbaland)… But you knew that already.
Duran Duran - Nite Runner
What was to be a triumphant return of the original famous five line-up for Duran turned to disaster as guitarist Andy Taylor grew increasingly distant from the band, forcing them to scrap an in-progress album (with Taylor all over it) and begin again on another with the unlikely choice of Timbaland in the hot seat for three tracks.
We’re choosing the excellent SexyBack sequel Nite Runner as our pick, which criminally wasn’t released as a single after the poor performance of first (and only) single Falling Down (featuring Justin Timberlake, natch) and the entire Red Carpet Massacre album.
Beyonce – Drunk In Love
Included here for its sterling vocals and brave trap beats, but it’s this simple track’s disproportionately extensive production credits that are the stuff of legend. Drunk In Love is (somehow) produced by - deep breath - Detail, J-Roc, Boots, Dre Moon, Soko, Diaz, Knowles herself and, oh yeah, Timbaland.
Timbaland (featuring Nelly Furtado & SoShy) - Morning After Dark
OK. So everybody loved Shock Value. And Shock Value 2? Not so much. But this standout track that first aired without Furtado at all (and then in two subsequent versions each featuring a little more Furtado) should have done better than its 61 in the States suggests.
Jay-Z - Big Pimpin’
The biggest hit from Jay-Z’s Vol.3 and another prize Arabic sample from Timbaland’s secret closet. Enjoy this brazen rap ensemble piece and then listen to the secret sample that powers it.
Timbaland & Magoo - Up Jumps Da Boogie
Or - more accurately, as they were known back then - Magoo & Timbaland. This is Timbo’s first single as an artist and is remarkable in that its space and ambience are drummed up via an audible white noise hurricane blowing through the entire track from beginning to end. Listen closely, then give it a try on your next production.
Missy Elliot - Get Ur Freak On
Let’s close with a classic. Just squeezed from our five, but the pinnacle of Timbaland’s work with Elliot and another legendary piece of eastern/western fusion from the master.