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Timbaland: The Emperor of Sound

Is 'Empire' really the first thing you associate with the legendary producer?

“Executive producer of the hit show Empire” wouldn’t be the first thing I’d associate with Timothy “Timbaland” Mosely, but it’s proudly emblazoned on the front cover of the new biography he wrote with Veronica Chambers, Timbaland: The Emperor of Sound. Yes, there are apparently some people on this miserable (possibly flat) planet that are more likely to connect Timbaland with a Fox TV show, rather than with his decades of genre-twisting production for artists such as Aaliyah, Missy Elliott, Jay-Z, and Justin Timberlake—to name a select few. If I were one such casual fan, I might be pleased by this barebones journal of Timbo’s life. Unfortunately, I’m a rap nerd that regularly listens to Da Bassment Demo Tape and collects Beat Club singles on vinyl. As such, I’m far from satisfied by the level of detail set forth by Timbaland in this book.

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Don’t expect the meticulous musicophilia of Ahmir Thompson’s Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove here. Despite boasting his “prodigious ability to collect and catalog sounds,” Timbaland is at his best when he’s sonically deconstructing and recontextualizing music. Unfortunately he doesn’t have the same archival mind as other DJs and producers, so the book suffers when he opines about the music that inspired him. He talks about being obsessed with Rick James and Prince as a child but the passion one typically has for a formative artist isn’t tangible in his words.

There isn’t much explicit talk of how exactly Timbaland formulated his musical style. He maintains a quirky, naturalistic perspective regarding sound in the book, describing how rain, Virginia shipyard noise, kitchen utensils, and animals (“Birds taught me more about harmony, pitch and melody than anything I ever heard on our family radio”) are the music of everyday life, reminding me of Winona Ryder’s Björk impression on Saturday Night Live.

Considering how singular and unique an artist Timbaland is, it’s surprising how generic and unspecific this book is when it comes to music. For example, we learn that Timbaland started out as a Mantronix-influenced party DJ in Virginia who made beats with an Ensoniq EPS. This period is described with very little elaboration. He gives us the raw data but fails to paint a picture with it. The book often feels like a collection of life milestones mixed with platitudes about hard work, not a cohesive memoir. Timbaland prefers to settle into self-help territory with the use of awkward inspirational aphorisms (Thomas Edison was a daydreamer; so was Timbaland!) instead of elaborating on his musical and personal evolution with more depth.

We learn that Timbaland was shot while working at Red Lobster, paralyzing his left arm for seven months. He exercised the limp arm and forced movement out of it while DJing with his functional right arm and left shoulder through agonizing pain. He sued Red Lobster and used the money to buy an ASR-10 sampler that he still uses today. The language used in this book is so plain and unexciting that they somehow couldn’t even make this story sound interesting.

Timbaland finally starts writing with flair when he deigns to talk about his own music. He describes the beat for Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” as the sound of “a high school marching band, all outfitted with electronic instruments,” and he could’ve easily stretched out his time producing for Jodeci in their haunted studio under the strict regime of totalitarian groove master DeVante Swing in a book of its own. He casually mentions an amazing tidbit about how he used to make beats by leaving records out in the sun and letting them warp to create strange, otherworldly sounds.

I really enjoyed hearing him describe Nelly Furtado’s Loose as an attempt at recreating the Paradise Garage’s frenetic atmosphere, where Nile Rodgers might be dancing on the same floor as Madonna. I never would’ve made that observation on my own or thought that Timbo made music with something like that as a sonic touchstone. More specific insights into his process such as this and multiple pages dedicated to key albums (the making of Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly is omitted from this book) could’ve made for a compelling read. Unfortunately, most of what’s covered in this book’s just over 200 pages feels too generic to keep me interested. Timbaland: The Emperor of Sound is a decent entry point for casual music fans looking for the Cliff’s Notes on one of the minds behind Empirebut it fails to succeed as a complete Timbaland biography.

Rollie Pemberton is also known as rapper and producer Cadence Weapon. Follow him on Twitter.