Even before the less-than-godly results of Shock Value came to be known, über-producer Tim Mosley, aka Timbaland, revealed how perfectly human he actually is by giving into his ego.
The man, who has elevated the work of Missy Elliot, Ginuwine, Aaliyah and, most dazzlingly, Justin Timberlake, has been dogged by a lack of similar solo success. Working behind the scenes, he's a luminous magician. When on frontal display, Timbaland has served up decidedly mixed bags. Shock Value represents his pride-fueled stab at solo stardom. He remains the star throughout this predictably overstuffed collection of sonic strikes and gutters, but the album doesn't come close achieving its intended purpose.
In the world of hip-hop, the notion of a solo album has grown murky, almost to the point of being a half misnomer. Accordingly, Shock Value features numerous collaborations that manage to keep the spotlight tilted toward Timbaland's prowess. He teams with a dizzying array of talents, ranging from JT to the Hives to Dr. Dre and even Sir Elton John. Almost invariably, the way these pairings sound in theory matches their tangible outcome. Beyond this predictability, the myriad genres that Timbaland incorporates into his motif of slick, glistening futurism foresees the album's unfocused air.
Despite its scattered contents, Shock Value seems to unfold like a deliberately structured, three-act play. The opening stretch finds Timbaland on familiar ground in the realm of grooving, ultra-syncopated club thrillers. "Oh Timbaland" starts with a choppy mingling of piano and handclaps that eases into a thin line of fidgety guitars and blips. It's quintessential Timbaland fare: active, crisp but not overwrought.
The tide swell dances on with the lead single "Give It To Me," which is mesmerizingly percussive and rhythmic. The beats play out so crisply they are almost brittle. But a layer of compressed fuzziness on top of that, combined with the patient pacing, lends a mysterious effect. The trinity of vocal pieces — from Nelly Furtado, Timba (as he self-references in the song) and JT — is completely unexceptional. But the beats trump all else, a near-surefire truth that holds for the best track on Shock Value, "Release." It's a perfect club burner with a groove that's shamelessly bouncy and twitchy (like the most infectious gems of LCD Soundsystem merged with hip-hop danciness). Similar to almost all of Shock Value, the lyrics are negligible. This rampant shortcoming, however, doesn't suffer further from a boring vocal work. "Release" barely possesses a typical verse-chorus structure. It's like one thrillingly elongated chorus.
The highest offerings of Shock Value end there. The suite of club work hobbles along with "The Way I Are," an icily futuristic piece that suffers from incompetent lyricism and flat vocals. This tension of terrific, often disarming, production work and banality in all other components is the ultimate flaw at work. The same goes for "Come and Get Me," "Kill Yourself" and the absurd smut of "Bounce."
The second stage downshifts slightly into misbegotten stabs at updated R&B. The Top 40 fodder of "Fantasy," "Scream" and "Miscommunication" are not exceptionally poor, but like many of Jay Z's misfires on Kingdom Come, these numbers clearly don't have much to offer. They're just not necessary.
By this point in Shock Value, dreadful lyricism has cemented itself as a permanent plague. It's not the main problem, though. Poor lyrics can easily mask their worthlessness behind exceptional vocal deliveries. Case in point: It doesn't matter that Marvin Gaye's lyrics on "What's Going On" are repetitive and sophomorically pious. Gaye's incredibly lucid and lulling voice was his trump card. Or, to make it more relevant, the mopey poetry of "My Love" comes through so sweetly because of JT's fascinating falsetto.
Conversely, Timbaland and his numerous collaborators fail at delivering these goods. The former's voice is flat, lifeless and almost incapable of oscillating smoothly between notes. His guests, while more skilled, lack the verve necessary to hold entire songs. The only highpoint of this second act is the Bollywood-meets-flashy production of "Bombay," but this is far from adequate.
The closing run of Shock Value is its most intriguing and failed set of songs. It brings in rock of a variety of stripes — emo, garage, art, classic — and, sadly, suffers for its attempted innovation. The Hives-collabo "Throw It On Me" is tempting, but even in its brevity, it reveals itself as rather silly. The same goes for Fall Out Boy's work on "One and Only," which sounds promising for about 30 seconds until Patrick Stump takes the helm at lead vocals. It's hard to say if these pairings were doomed from their inception, but their ultimate outcome is very clear. Again, there is some sweet mixed in with the bitter. She Wants Revenge vocalist Justin Warfield serves a hypnotically artsy chorus on "Time" that is the high point of the album's second half. Moments like this, however, stay at the level of aberration.
Timbaland's stature will not suffer from this seriously inconsistent work, but it doesn't advance his cause, either. On "Give It To Me," he delivers the now infamous "dis" line to rival (and inferior) producer Scott Storch: "I'm a real producer, and you just the piano man." It's a cutting dig in what is a truly silly back and forth. Perhaps inadvertently, it reveals more about Timbaland himself than he had intended. He is a "real producer," conceives himself as such and should remain just that.
Shock Value features all the foreign sounds of futurism that we've come to crave from Timbaland — and little else.
Grade: 2.5 out of 5