CD of the week: Timbaland and Magoo, Indecent Proposal

Superstar R&B producer Timbaland doesn't cut it as a rapper, says Alexis Petridis

Timbaland and Magoo Indecent Proposal
(Blackground) ***

At the end of last year, the press was filled with articles protesting the awfulness of Christmas records. As ever, Phil Spector's classic 1964 album A Christmas Gift to You was held up as evidence that not all festive pop had to be dreadful. While lavishing their praise, however, writers chose to ignore the album's final track, a genuinely chilling version of Silent Night on which Spector made the ill-advised decision to leave his production desk and take to the vocal booth. He has the sort of creepy voice parents adopt in order to scare their children.

Spector broke one of popular music's unwritten by-laws: producers should never be allowed anywhere near a microphone. It's easy to see why the impulse strikes them: they spend hours twiddling knobs in semi-obscurity, while the artists get the girls, drugs and video shoots in exotic climes. But like Gremlins and water, producers and microphones must be kept apart.

Rock history is littered with cautionary tales. Norman "Hurricane" Smith, who helped Pink Floyd realise their most lurid psychedelic albums, then became a nasal early-1970s MOR crooner. Alan Parsons, another Pink Floyd associate, formed antiseptic prog rockers the Alan Parsons Project, a band every bit as thrilling as their name suggests. Trevor Horn was the architect of Frankie Goes to Hollwood's immense sound, but also the vocalist on the Buggles' deathless Video Killed the Radio Star, a record only the most cloth-eared, ironically mulleted fashion victim could pretend to like.

Today, Virginia's Tim "Timbaland" Mosley may well be the most exciting record producer in the world. He was behind last year's two best singles, Aaliyah's We Need a Resolution and Missy "Misdemeanour" Elliott's Get Ur Freak On, perfect examples of his ability to balance commercial appeal with head-spinning innovation. Both records sold vast quantities while sounding utterly unlike anything else in the charts. That's largely because other hip-hop and R&B singles sound like tracks Mosley was making five years ago with Elliott and Destiny's Child. Everyone else is simply struggling to keep up, using the stuttering beats Timbaland patented in the late 1990s, then left behind.

Presumably flushed with success, however, Mosley has insisted on breaking the golden producers-and-microphones rule. He has pursued a parallel career as a rapper, apparently unabashed at the fact that his vocal style is as undistinguished as his production techniques are inimitable. He has progressed from making unremarkable guest appearances on his protegees' records to releasing his own albums in partnership with fellow Virginian Magoo.

Their third effort, Indecent Proposal, manages to be simultaneously enthralling and underwhelming. It's as if Alfred Hitchcock had abandoned cameo appearances in his films and instead taken the lead in North by Northwest. The direction and cinematography would still be gripping, but the film would lose a certain je ne sais quoi if a fat, bald, sour-faced Englishman, instead of Cary Grant, was huffing and puffing his way across a cornfield.

Indecent Proposal is packed with original ideas and sounds. It boasts fantastic production touches that could only be Mosley's work. People Like Myself and All Y'All weave naggingly insistent choruses around sinuous oriental flute samples. Drop shifts seamlessly from breakbeats into a grinding house rhythm. Roll Out has a rolling, skipping beat, off the wall even by Mosley's standards. It's more compelling than a simple rhythm track has any business to be.

But as usual, the problem comes when Mosley opens his mouth. In marked contrast to the artists he has produced, he is incapable of matching the aural splendour of his backgrounds with his vocals. They are strangely emotionless and awkward, as if someone were forcing him to rap at gunpoint. Even when indulging the traditional hip-hop sport of self-aggrandising, he sounds uncomfortable. "In London they say Tim, we love ya," he rhymes on All Y'All, before dropping into a faux-cockney accent so lamentable even Dick Van Dyke would scoff. "They call me things like wicked and the effin' guv'nor."

As Magoo is no great shakes on the microphone either, the listener is left waiting for the guest-appearance cavalry to turn up. The late Aaliyah, who always seemed to inspire Mosley's greatest work, is predictably fine on the closing I Am Music, a nursery-rhyme melody undercut by sinister hissing and buzzing. New discovery Petey Pablo turns in a frantic, edgy performance on Baby Bubba. Too often, however, the listener is left wishing Mosley had cut out the vocals altogether and left the album instrumental instead.

In America, the release of Indecent Proposal was marked by controversy. Mosley complained his record company had delayed its release - the album was completed almost two years ago. He then announced he was quitting his rap career altogether to concentrate on production, claiming he was sick of being propositioned by young female fans. It's certainly a unique reason: rapper quits because of excessive attention from "shorties". Perhaps even Timbaland has realised where his true strengths lie.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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