As one of the foremost forward-thinking artists still active in music today, Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley has consistently redefined pop and hip-hop radio since the onset of his career. Studying under DeVante Swing in the early ’90s, the Virginia native cultivated a tomorrow-reaching sound, working with a stable of artists — the likes of Missy Elliott, Ginuwine and Aaliyah — to alter the course of where urban music was headed. Since then, Tim has helped propel the careers of a litany of superstars — like Justin Timberlake, Jay Z and Beyoncé — by keeping one foot ahead of his competition, both sonically and professionally.
It’s a given that a producer as prolific, successful and awarded as Timbaland would stretch his wings as wide as possible, and his discography is overwhelming, to say the least. Consistency has never been his strong suit — his work is littered with throwaway instrumentals and solo efforts that never touched the greatness of his collabs with other artists — but even outside of his canon-worthy pop singles, Tim’s lesser-known music, both as a solo artist and as a producer for others, has its merits.
Sista, “Hip-Hop” (1994)
R&B group Sista, which previously went by Fayze, was the first pairing of Missy Elliott, one of its members, and Timbaland, who at the time was an apprentice of DeVante Swing. Though Tim doesn’t have concrete production credits on the LP, it’s obvious that he served as ghost producer for Swing, who had been mentoring the up-and-comer and slapping his name on his productions. Of the LP, which is firmly rooted in the sonic conventions of the time, “Hip-Hop” is a perfect encapsulation of the mid-‘90s sound, all thick, crackling drums, full-on harmonies and that little G-funk synth scribble.
Lil’ Kim, “Money Talks” (1997)
Like her mentor Notorious B.I.G., Lil’ Kim had a penchant for crystalline storytelling and narratives that sustained a compelling arc throughout a song’s duration (“M.A.F.I.A. Land,” “Aunt Dot,” “Revolution”). “Money Talks,” the title track off the soundtrack for the 1997 film of the same name, follows suit, unfolding a narrative of scheming on a fake gangster named Drake (not that Drake) to seek revenge at the moment she gains his trust. But the beat, which marked Timbaland’s first collaboration with Kim (they later would reconnect on “The Jump Off”), marked a stylistic heel-turn for the producer, who was in the process of evolving from New Jack Swing tagalong into an experimental neophyte, delivering a near-tropical beat that played as a gloomier companion piece to his later work on The L.O.X.’s “Ryde or Die, Bitch.”
Destiny’s Child, “Say My Name” (Timbaland Remix) (1999)
Certainly one of the most velveteen tunes in Timbaland’s canon, the remix to Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” dials down the light-paced twang of its Darckchild-helmed source material and slips into after dark mode. Evoking the slinking mystique of his work with Aaliyah and Ginuwine, Timbaland sprinkles twinkling keys over clattering drums with newly recorded vocals from the quartet, putting Kelly Rowland on first verse duties (a rarity for the group and especially for Kelly, who once even termed herself “second lead vocalist”) and serving the rest to Beyoncé. Each maintains the talking-on-the-phone conceit of the original, yet unlike the single version, Timbaland and songwriter Static Major respond — trying to pacify their girlfriends.
Missy Elliott, “Lick Shots” (2001)
Timbaland and Missy Elliott’s chemistry on wax is indelible, and their dynamic only intensified from the release of her solo debut Supa Dupa Fly in 1997 to subsequent projects. For Miss E… So Addictive, the pair outgrew the shtick of Da Real World’s hyper-futurism and settled into a more daring mode, pulling from international styles (“Get Ur Freak On” is a jewel in the crown of Elliott’s discography) and a bank of sounds previously unheard on Timbaland productions. Outside of the LP’s singles, “Lick Shots,” which Elliott included as an addendum in the music video for “Get Ur Freak On,” stands as one of Tim’s most speakerboxing creations to date. The doom-and-gloom track is all sneer and snarl, complete with Tim’s signature dizzying percussion, a deep bass and jingling synths that added a glimmer to the growl below.
Timbaland & Magoo featuring Aaliyah and Static, “I Am Music” (2001)
Timbaland & Magoo didn’t have the strongest streak when it came to their collaborative LPs — Magoo barely made a dent without Tim by his side, which says a lot. Their duets served as a space for Tim to use as a production playground, where the rhymes were rarely head-turning. But perhaps the most notable cut from their joint oeuvre, outside of singles like “Cop That Shit” and “Here We Come,” was “I Am Music” off Indecent Proposal. Dark and misty, it mined old Aaliyah vocals in the wake of her death with melodies from Static Major, who would pass away seven years later. In retrospect, it’s an ominous foretelling, but it’s also a rare, tender moment from Timbaland, who always leaned on tempos that raced much faster.
Brandy, “Sadiddy” (2004)
Timbaland stepped in for the majority of the production on Brandy’s best album, Afrodisiac, which saw the erstwhile teen star coping with the aftermath of a heart-stomping divorce. Nestled among the fiery upbeat bangers (“Turn It Up”) and mid-tempo singles (“Who Is She 2 U,” “Talk About Our Love”) was “Sadiddy,” galloping at the pace of double dutch. It was a mid-album entry that captured the necessary course of action during a breakup to momentarily shelve your emotions and get lost in the music. It had energy pulsing through its aural veins, a welcome respite from its melancholy bookends.
Timbaland, “Oh Timbaland” (2007)
Innovation as a producer comes naturally to Timbaland, which is why “Oh Timbaland,” the first song on his debut solo album Shock Value, was such a step forward for him. Tim has always been a sampler, so mining from Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” for the opener wasn’t much of a surprise, but rather speaks to his skill in what he did with it. Whereas Kanye West slowed down the keys from the song for Talib Kweli’s “Get By,” Tim surgically recut Simone’s vocals from “Oh sinnerman, where he gon’ run to” to make it sound like she was singing “Oh Timbaland.” Simplistic, but wholly effective.
Keri Hilson featuring Akon, “Mic Check” (2009)
Say what you will about Keri Hilson, but the Beyhive’s biggest target pre-Rachel Roy has a notable enough catalog to justify her presence. Hilson and Timbaland had worked together numerous times, particularly on her debut album In a Perfect World… as well as his solo albums, but it was on Hilson’s unreleased track with Akon, “Mic Check,” that their harmony fully clicked. Though it was only leaked in unmastered form, where the mixing levels are clearly off, Hilson and Akon trade off against a thundering instrumental, playing up Tim’s knack for producing menacing backgrounds that befit brighter toplines. It’s the best either of them ever sounded in working with one another.
Lil Wayne, “Up Up and Away” (2011)
Timbaland has always been a melodic artisan — some of his best and most successful work has been with pop and R&B artists, striking the balance between a supple topline and next-level instrumentation that plays right up to it. So it’s refreshing to hear when ambiance and aesthetic took precedent over melody, particularly on Lil Wayne’s “Up Up and Away,” a deluxe edition bonus track from Tha Carter IV. Granted, the instrumental, co-produced by Wizz Dumb, pulls from the hypnotic loop-around sample of Bangladesh’s “A Mill” beat and creates a swirl of industrial clangs, all at alternate rhythms, cranking along as Weezy flips lyrical gymnastics atop.
Justin Timberlake featuring Drake, “Cabaret” (2013)
Selecting the penultimate non-single collaboration between Justin Timberlake and Timbaland isn’t as daunting as it seems: Their work together on Justified was greatly dwarfed by The Neptunes’; FutureLove/SexSounds was basically one giant single; all the unreleased leaked collabs are trash; and The 20/20 Experience Pt. 1 was culturally ubiquitous. The latter album’s sequel, mired with slapped-together tossaways, had a sole glimmer: “Cabaret,” featuring Drake, which was inexplicably not one of its four singles. The hookiest inclusion on the LP breathed and exhaled, coursing at the speed of a whirling carousel, all lights and sparkle, one of the most optimistic footnotes in Timbaland’s repertoire.