Timbaland: 10 of the best

The pick of the futuristic R&B and hip-hop producer's choicest tracks, from minimal beats to dance-pop with Katy Perry

1 Ginuwine – Pony (1996)

Somewhere after making his debut – alongside Pharrell Williams – in Surrounded by Idiots, Timbaland got the keys to a proper studio to hone his craft, and this 1996 track is his real coming-out – a raunchy, horndogging, lowrider of a track that takes the comfy porch-step beats of early 90s rap and straightens them out, placing them into rigid arrangements with plenty of space between everything. This is Timbaland's chief innovation – minimalism made maximal – and Ginuwine gives it some brilliant full-bore perving with his top line. It's fair to say that once Timbaland's created a masterpiece, he'll do it again and again to a slowly diminishing quality: the yerp-yerp-yerp vocal sound crops up again in his remix of Babyface's This Is For the Lover in You.

2 Missy Elliott – The Rain (1997)

Like a sultry wallflower resistant to Ginuwine's prancing Romeo, The Rain takes the minimalism deeper, honing in on the bassline and reducing the snares to the occasional hiss. Missy Elliott, who by 1997 was already becoming Timbaland's first great muse, reacts gleefully, also dialling her flow down to the basics – and does more with “five-six-seven, eight-nine-ten” than metaphor-stockpiling MCs ever do. This is the ransom note for the hip-hop breakbeat: innovate, otherwise I smother it entirely.

3 Aaliyah – Try Again (2000)

Bolder yet is this distillation of his classic style into something completely other: where Pony still had ties to the previous new jack swing style, here Timbaland breaks free, making R&B the definitive music of the new millennium. The first 20 seconds are staggering, a masterclass in funk in which elements are brought in one by one and yet paradoxically create more space as each arrives; India is still there in the sitars, but soon gets obliterated by an acid-house line vying with Aaliyah's alkaline coo. The snare drum is especially fine, a desiccated version of the already-harsh one used by D'Angelo to cut through his swampy erotica. In terms of minimalist funk and futurism, very little (save Clipse's Grindin, say, or Cassie's Me & U) has come close since.

4 Missy Elliott – Get Ur Freak On (2001)

This is the deranged, visionary, still-unrivalled high water mark of Timbaland's then-flourishing "exotic" phase. He's torn off the leash, running into the avant-garde with rippling tablas flowing almost arhythmically through the stronger beat line, and it's so sparse that until the chorus it could have been made on a four-track. In verse three, there are periods of silence that are unimaginable in the charts today. Of course, you need an MC of the calibre of Missy to negotiate this broken terrain, who turns hectoring into hooks and lets the silences become unforgettable punchlines.

5 Tweet – Oops (Oh My) (2002)

This shares the ratatat rhythm of Get Ur Freak On, but chloroformed into sluggishness. Or perhaps just stoned to the point of sensuality: Tweet comes home high, take her clothes off and makes love to herself. Where Freak On has a thin string part that wonderfully fails to wrestle the song to the ground, Oops (Oh My)'s midrange is thick and luscious, built around a wordless vocal sample, while right at the bottom breathes what sounds like a surge of air from inside a tabla. After the purge of the previous two masterpieces, Timbaland is pulling elements back into coherence again.

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6 Timbaland feat Magoo – Indian Flute (2003)

During the first half of the 00s Timbaland was looking further than his dogeared copy of Thriller for samples and started plundering Asian and Latin obscurities for licks. This approach yielded Jay-Z's masterful Big Pimpin', whose beat is heavily based around Hossam Ramzy's Khusara Khusara – it set off a 00s rap sub-meme. But Indian Flute's insanely catchy melody makes it the real keeper – even though it's actually from Colombia's Totó la Momposina, who also ended up on Timbaland's beat for Rich Boy's Get To Poppin. Incidentally, this rather laissez-faire attitude to intellectual property tipped him into hot water in 2007, when he was sued by Kernal Records for using a sample of Finnish chiptune producer Janne Suni's Acidjazzed Evening for Nelly Furtado's Do It. Timbaland's reply? “I don't know him from a can of paint. I'm 15 years deep. That's how you attack a king? You attack moi? Come on, man.”

7 Cee-Lo Green – I'll Be Around (2004)

As well as blockbuster hits, Timbaland is responsible for much-loved cult curios like Brandy's Afrodisiac, Bubba Sparxxx's hick-hop Deliverance, and this tinny yet thumping track from a landmark yet underrated soul album, Cee-Lo Green … Is the Soul Machine. The Latin influence crops up again, with fat brass and a muggy beat, accompanied by gospel vocals swelling throughout the chorus; its brother in Timbaland's catalogue is Jay Z's shamelessly Latino-pandering Hola Hovito, equally full of pants-dragging swagger.

8 Justin Timberlake – SexyBack (2006)

Timbaland took the sensuality of Oops (Oh My) to a big-budget peak with Justin Timberlake's Cry Me a River, but Sexyback is another interesting shift: tense and stunningly asphyxiated, the unwinding 808 rhythm of Try Again now malfunctioning into blurts of digital static. Timberlake is funky enough to make it work – where his natural habitat is something supple and fleet-footed like Señorita, he can equally suit up and get robotic when necessary.

9 Omarion – Ice Box (2006)

Another retooling of a previous success – in this case Timberlake's My Love – but this actually surpasses the more celebrated track. As with The Rain, it's all about restraint, but rather than minimal drum programming where each kick is hugely important, he dilutes and spreads out the drums to leave a constant soft patter; the high-pitched piano motif is equally light on the ears. It's the rhythmic synth notes that recall My Love, but cast in sadness, with Omarion's single-note chorus unforgettably wrenching and signifying his maturity far better than his rather gallery-playing use of the n-word. It's also an example of Timbaland cameoing in his tracks like some fur-trimmed Hitchcock, which was restricted in the early years to an "a-ha" but by this point is flourishing into full-blown chorus crashing.

10 Timbaland feat Katy Perry – If We Ever Meet Again (2010)

The aforementioned narcissism flowered into the Shock Value albums of 2007 and 2009, where Timbaland, occasionally the main event in his hip-hop side projects, hauled himself into frontman status. He paints himself into scenes from power balladry to dance-pop, and leveraged his capital to accrue guest stars who'd make them slightly less ridiculous. On this Katy Perry collaboration, he tries a kind of peppy country-pop. But it's not without precedent: the guitar is actually a major Timbaland trope, wielded acoustically on Bubba Sparxxx's Deliverance, funkily with the Rapture, or plain bizarrely on Chris Cornell's reinvention album Scream. The synthetic drivetime pseudo-rock works brilliantly here, particularly when paired with the inventive series of faces Timbaland pulls in the video, from his "Rodin's Thinker having a manic episode" to his "enjoyable colonic irrigation".

• What do you think of Ben Beaumont-Thomas's choices? Let us know what he's missed and we'll publish an alternative playlist of your selections.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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