- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Shock Value II

For good or ill, producer, hit-maker and rapper Timbaland is as responsible as anyone for the sound of contemporary R&B.

He’s worked the soundboard for hip-hop stars including Ludacris, Lil’ Kim and Snoop Dogg and produced pop tracks for names like Jennifer Lopez, Justin Timberlake and, more recently, Bjork and Nelly Furtado. He favors strong but slow beats, inflected with Arabic scales and retro synth riffs that sound clipped from late 1980s arcade games.

Timbaland (real name, Timothy Zachery Mosley) really blew up in the late 1990s, and the sound he helped develop feels mired in that time. It’s not quite so stultified as to be purely formulaic, but it’s more than familiar by now and verging on passe.

Given his track record, it’s no surprise that the stars came out for the second album in Timbaland’s “Shock Value” series. Mr. Timberlake, Miss Furtado, Katy Perry, Esthero and teen star Miley Cyrus all headline tracks.

Some of the possible radio hits here don’t sound like they’ll catch on. Particularly ill-advised is a duet with Brandy Norwood (performing under her rap name, Bran’Nu) called “Meet in the Middle.” It’s a ponderous ode to compromise, with Timbaland playing the part of a cheating partner looking to be absolved and Miss Norwood having none of it. It’s rivaled in its banality only by “Carry Out,” the track featuring Mr. Timberlake. As its title promises, it unleashes a barrage of awful puns linking fast food and instant romance.

By contrast, Miss Cyrus knocks “We Belong to Music” out of the park, convincingly selling lines like, “We belong to the music/We don’t answer to you” and “Come on and party like it ain’t no curfew.” The 1980s retro beats aren’t exactly fresh, but they set a campy, high-stepping tone.

“Ease off the Liquor” also has potential to be a club hit, but for all the wrong reasons. The song describes an epic inebriated meltdown, playing on the exaggerated pulsating synth of early 1990s club music. I see it becoming a go-to soundtrack to accompany dance-floor interventions.

Timbaland lays it on the line on “Timothy Where You Been,” featuring the Australian pop band Jet. His rapping style is low-key and fairly uninteresting except when it’s stupefyingly weak, as on rhymes such as “Hits for Jay-Z/Nelly Furtado/Catch up, you’re all slow/Escargot.”

It’s hard to tell what’s at stake here for Timbaland. He was in no rush to release the album, which reportedly was ready to drop in November of last year to time with the elections. He’s not breaking any new artists here, although French singer Deborah Epstein, who performs under the handle SoShy, is getting her biggest U.S. exposure to date. In the end, “Shock Value” feels like a collection of orphaned tracks, not the work of a singular musical mind.

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