If last year’s charts are any indication, Timbaland did for pop music what Justin did for sexy. Though his behind-the-scenes swagger got a little old after the umpteenth time we saw him roly-poly his way through some resurgent pop star’s otherwise ripped-abs video, we generally forgave and forgot — huge hits, huge hitmaker, right? On “Shock Value,” his second album of solo material and his highest-profile release to date, Timbo squeezes out an hour’s worth of beat juice for his guest roster extraordinaire, everyone from Cheesecake Furtado to Elton “what the fuck is he doing on this record” John (can’t wait for the Bjork collabo — seriously). Though his sounds stick, bounce and slide as much as ever, “Shock Value” feels more like a roughshod outtakes collection than the logical next step in his tastemaking career — but as is often the case with genius, even Tim’s circular file is aural gold in today’s pop climate.
Pure diamonds bookend the disc, though, as the second and second-to-last tracks respectively yank pop down to its dance floor origins and elevate it to sweeping new heights. “Give It To Me” sequels Furtado’s “Promiscuous” as a pat and professional showcase for utterly perfect pop music: lithe, jiggly beat, vapid lyrics about clubbing and shit, every bleep and bloop and record scratch right where it should be. Look hot, feel good, check your brain at the door — we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Fourteen tracks later, “Apologize” is what happens when Timbo listens to too much No Mercy — then again, don’t, because this track kills. Guest artist Ryan Tedder (looks like Kevin Federline, sounds like Jeff Buckley — where did they find this guy?) falsettos his way over the most gorgeous electronica melody since “I’ll Fly With You.” The lyrics fill that anguished-tough-dude void we’ve been in since Daniel Powter one-hit-wondered himself to the discount bin: “I’m holding on your rope/ Got me ten feet off the ground/ I’m hearing what you say/ But I just can’t make a sound.”
This being a Timbaland disc, “Apologize” is one of the few tracks that doesn’t consign the vocalist to window-dressing status. Similarly, “Bounce” pulls Dr. Dre out of his gazillionaire ghetto for a guest-rapping stint on a hard-nipple bitch-banger that reminds us just where Eminem learned his tricks. Finally, Fall Out Boy not-so-successfully genre-leaps to “One and Only,” where they somehow think that more swears and synths qualifies them as urban crossover. Babyface was forgivable — this is preposterous.
By and large, the best tracks disguise the guest star in as much techno wizardry as possible — someone pick out Nicole Scherzinger from the angel chorus of “Scream” or Justin Timberlake from the cowbell-laden “Release.” There, a “Nosferatu”-esque organ-grinder plays hopscotch with a twangy electric guitar and J.T.’s own strained-scared voice — and yes, it sounds just as awesome as all that.
Though there are points on the album where Timbo resorts to insta-hit formula fodder — deeper bass, heavier handclaps, beatier beatboxing — he flips the script enough times to keep things fresh. Spin “Bombay,” where twinkling sitar and Buddha-Bar strings dance over one of the most irregular-rhythmed backbeats to make its way to our hemisphere. Meanwhile, “Fantasy,” is lead-single material for a lesser diva, a Cassie or Rhianna looking to stretch their thin voices over Tim’s 10-ton drumline.
For all its high points, “Shock Value” won’t quite elevate the knob-twirler who never met a Pro Tool he didn’t like out of the demi-star status he’s held for a decade now. While backroom music execs getting fat off his labor figure out ways to chain him to the producer’s booth and keep him off the mic (and out of the videos), this release may be his own white flag — a slick, sharp confection that, far from opening the new conceptual door we know is waiting right around the corner (don’t forget about that Björk album), simply demonstrates why we’ve loved the man so much over the past ten years.