It's hard to imagine today's pop landscape without Timbaland. Before his arrival in 1996 as the new bleeding edge of mainstream R&B, the genre was seemingly beholden to whatever stylistic crumbs hip-hop passed its way, whether it was the clubby blue beats of Easy Mo Bee or the hydraulic-powered gangsta funk of Dr. Dre. While hip-hop seemingly evolved at a rate so blindingly fast even its most ardent followers struggled to keep up, the R&B world hadn't experienced a real sonic quantum leap since Teddy Riley fused go-go, def beats and J.B. funk into New Jack Swing.
That changed with Timbaland. When Ginuwine's "Pony" hit the radio airwaves in the summer of 1996, it sounded as bizarrely alien as Zapp's "Computer Love." The tempos swung in a stutter-step, and Tim filtered and chopped the melody amid squealing computer noises that blipped rhythmically. It sounded like a jungle gym swing rocking back and forth on its chains. While the sound was disorienting yet playful, Ginuwine's vocals were anxiously erotic: When he sang about riding like a pony, he wasn't talking about a children's petting zoo.
Later that year came Aaliyah's One in a Million, which arguably marked the final element in the birth of the contemporary R&B scene we know today: music that is slick and quantized yet warm and full of life, and that feels electronic and seamless even when analog instruments are used in its creation. Other musicians contributed to it, particularly New Jack holdovers Riley, Babyface, and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, as well as Rodney Jerkins and Diddy's Hitmen, among others. But Timbaland was soon crowned as the true prince of the "jiggy" years, the one who reinvented R&B with a few twists of the knobs on his engineering console.
Cut to 2006, when Nelly Furtado's "Promiscuous" lands on the charts. It's easy to forget that Timbaland was seen as a declining force at the time. Credit for his principal hit on Justin Timberlake's Justified, "Cry Me a River," was soon negated by a songwriting dispute with then-hot keyboardist and producer Scott Storch. His Beat Club label had failed, as had prospects like Bubba Sparxxx (whose modest career was the label's sole success) and Ms. Jade. He still landed credits on major albums like The Game's The Documentary ("Put You on the Game"), but they rarely led to breakout singles.
So "Promiscuous" and its resulting album, Loose, marked a surprising rejuvenation. The song effortlessly fused his past hallmarks, such as the bhangra rhythms once used on Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On," with his current interest in frizzy electro-house. Timberlake's "Sexyback." arrived later that year. Both tracks portended electronic music's re-emergence into the American pop mainstream, a development that exploded a year later via Timbaland and Keri Hilson's "The Way I Are."
Timberlake's new The 20/20 Experience brings another crossroads. It feels like a final, triumphant bow for both men, with the title star focused on a multi-platform celebrity of which music plays only a part, and Timbaland contending with his decreasing influence, thanks to a hit-making cold streak that dates back to 2009 and his Drake collaboration "Say Something." But as history has shown us, we shouldn't count out Tim re-emerging as a pop innovator once more.