It may not have been fully appreciated at the time, but subsequent years have shown that the Neptunes/Timbaland axis represented a brilliantly fertile period for R&B, and for chart music in general. They were sonically adventurous and took risks, and those risks paid off. It seems almost impossible to believe now, but back in 2002 Justin Timberlake was known just as a boy-band alumnus and ex of Britney Spears. Justified, his debut album, which featured both The Neptunes and Timbaland on production duties, transformed him overnight from gawky *NSYNC frontman into the new Michael Jackson, but with the addition of raw sex appeal.
The Neptunes first started making dents in the charts back in the mid-90s, during the New Jack Swing era, working with acts such as SWV and BLACKstreet. However, 1999 saw their real breakthrough with Kelis’ debut album Kaleidoscope, led by the single Caught Out There and its once-heard, never-forgotten chorus howl of, “I hate you so much right now!” Over the course of the next few years, The Neptunes seemed to produce classic singles at will for artists such as Mystikal (Shake Your Ass), Britney Spears (Slave 4 U), Nelly (Hot In Herre), Gwen Stefani (Hollaback Girl) and Kelis again (Milkshake). All of these are entirely familiar now but each featured something that seemed brand new at the time which made you sit up and take notice – the seemingly ever-descending synths of Slave 4 U, the stomp and chant of Hollaback girl, the truly bizarre percussion that characterised Milkshake – The Neptunes were true innovators.
Timbaland’s rapping may leave a lot to be desired, but he’s no slouch in front of a mixing desk either. It was with the late Aaliyah that he made his name, producing the teen prodigy’s second album, One In A Million. Towards the end of the millennium, his distinctive drum breaks turned up on Missy Elliott cuts, Jay-Z tracks and, for some reason, the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack. Despite having been extraordinarily prolific over the last two decades, his work with Missy Elliott and Aaliyah was his finest, fostering a working relationship that brought out the best from all parties.
Producers such as Rodney Jerkins and Raphael Saadiq, and elder statesmen like Babyface and Teddy Riley all played their part, but as the first decade of the new century progressed, the subtlety, invention and risk-tasking gave way to a homogenised form of rave-pop. While it may seem like Calvin Harris and Avicii have won, there’s a new generation of singers who are looking to inject some of that golden era magic back into contemporary music.
Kelela’s Cut 4 Me mixtape was released towards the end of 2013 to great acclaim, and puts a darker, dystopian spin on glitchy, experimental R&B. Like back in the day, it came with a list of producers to investigate, such as Kingdom, Jam City and Nguzunguzu. Cut 4 Me also featured the production talents of Bok Bok, head of the Night Slugs record label, and earlier this year he and Kelela teamed up again for the phenomenal Melba’s Call single. There are also several other fresh and exciting artists with a more downtempo, stoned take on the genre: Banks, FKA Twigs, Sampha and SZA are all tipped for big things. Perhaps, a decade on, R&B is finally back in good hands, and what’s more, it’s no longer the sole preserve of our cousins across the Atlantic.
Five Turn of the Century Classics to Revisit
Whitney Houston – It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay
Written by Rodney Jerkins, this track has recently been getting attention again thanks to its use in Duke Dumont’s smash hit, I Got U. It’s Not Right… showed a grittier side to Houston, and the syncopated xylophone line that runs through the song is characteristic of the unusual sounds and rhythms that could be found in chart music then.
Brandy – What About Us?
For context, this was only four years after The Boy Is Mine and before What About Us?, Brandy’s previous single had been a cover of Phil Collin’s Another Day In Paradise. Another Rodney Jerkins production, this somehow sounds like it’s being played both backwards and forwards simultaneously, and a dozen years on from its release, it still sounds like the future.
Aaliyah – Are You That Somebody?
This was released as the late Aaliyah was on the cusp of her mainstream breakthrough in the UK. The jerky, stop-start production is typical of Aaliyah and Timbaland’s collaborations of the era and somehow, the bizarre, repeated noise of what sounds like a baby crying in this song doesn’t detract from the overall feeling of longing.
The 411 – On My Knees
Around the turn of the century, British R&B was more focussed on 2-step garage beats and laying the foundations for grime. However, The 411, named after Mary J Blige’s debut album, What’s The 411?, looked to America for inspiration. On My Knees, their debut single, is a swinging, R&B update of All Saints’ Never Ever, and doesn’t deserve to have been largely forgotten.
Tweet – Drunk
Missy Elliott protégée Tweet is best remembered for here ode to self-love, Oops (Oh My), but Drunk, an album track which resurfaced on Metronomy’s recent Late Night Tales compilation, is transcendent. Over a beat so slow and ponderous it threatens to come to a halt altogether, Tweet glides her way through this paean to intoxication which will leave you feeling inebriated in itself.