Not since Schoolly D has a rapper rolled around so effectively in his own day-to-day mundanity. There are details about Timbaland's life here that you'd never doubt are just as he relates them; you know that he really does like Popsicles and pork 'n' beans. His Lou Reed I-pulled-out-a-chair-and-sat-on-it songwriting-school inclinations reach their surreal peak over the knickknack-paddywack beat of the strangely superstitious "15 After Da' Hour," about how everything always goes bad at quarter-after-something-o'clock, winding up at 7:15 with Tim's trusted sidekick Magoo passing out drunk in front of the VCR dreaming he's a monk. The album's three supposed "remix" tracks sound more like entirely different songs, with different words, rhythm, everything, recognizable only because Timba says stuff like "This is the remix of 'Up Jumps da' Boogie'" in the middle. Maybe he just ran out of titles.
Timbaland's music sounds as rustic as his name but space-age at the same time, and with an angular tequila-sunrise-desperado meet-me-at-high-noon-after-my-cartoons air to it skirting spaghetti-Western moods like reggae and "Planet Rock" used to; chantlike voices chatter alongside rubbery roller-disco riffs updated into a still-stuttering but less refrigerated distant cousin of drum 'n' bass. "Clock Strikes" takes its melody from "Mack the Knife," "Ms. Parker" parrots Mantronix's '80s tapdance-rap, and "Up Jumps da' Boogie"'s blipping hook owes more to Heatwave's 1977 bubbledisco hit "Boogie Nights" than the movie did. But somehow it all swings like a womping down-South house party.
Timbaland's diction is laid-back Virginia-style, low-rumbling but light on its feet like Barry White or Isaac Hayes, though his personality hints closer at an improbable cross between Sir Mix-a-Lot and PM Dawn's Prince Be. In "Luv 2 Luv U (Remix)" he bypasses his unremixed version's post-Donna Summer pillow-talk proclivities and becomes "the big black Kahuna," howling wolfman whoo-hoos and alluding to the old jump-blues classic "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby" as Magoo quotes "Surfin' Bird," shouts out to Ringo, and - in what must be the last lyrical reference to said public servant - mispronounces the name "Sonny Bono."
"I have a partner, as well as my friend," Timbaland rambles about his little buddy in the album's intro track, then corrects himself: "Well, I have two partners, as well as my friends." Numero Dos is Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliot, whose universally acclaimed but undeniably uneven debut disc (three great songs and a surplus of so-what R&B filler) Timbaland oversaw last summer. In larger portions Missy's voice starts to sound klutzy, but she sure can sock it 2 you sexwise, begging you to touch her hot spot so she'll scream nonstop like a bedroom wrecker who makes you beat your pecker. Magoo is notably less commanding, high and nasal and congested, but even looking up girls' skirts he sounds so girly himself that sometimes you confuse him with Missy. In fact, for the longest time I assumed (or maybe just twistedly hoped) it was her supa-dupa-big-boned self bragging about how "I can make a dyke go straight/If you think I'm cute then you up too late."
In their publicity bio, Magoo calls Timba a quiet guy, "more into God than I am"; on record, Tim seems like a Fort Bragg supply-room NCO with Magoo his bumbling Spec. 4 understudy. They're a big contrast to the other rap rookie whose debut CD has been explicitly representing a personal "World" all winter - like Welcome to Our World, Ma$e's Harlem World has a couple of cuts-with-R&B-guests stuck on in a blatant bid for urban-contemporary radio play, and, like Timba, Ma$e doesn't mind poking fun at himself. But where Tim comes off almost middle-aged, Ma$e seems boyish. And where Welcome's sample credits are limited to the Knight Rider theme and Missy beeping about Jeep keys, Ma$e would be nowhere without the voluminous hook-thievery of Puff Daddy, who produced half the album. Regardless, when Ma$e calls Puffy "Mr. Producer," it still sounds like "Mr. Magoo, sir"!
Best known as the "young Harlem nigga with the golden sound" who opened up Notorious B.I.G.'s epochal "Mo Money Mo Problems," Ma$e was actually born in Jacksonville, according to his record-label press sheet. He moved to Harlem at 5, but Mama shipped him south again at 13, as soon as "he began showing the slightest sign of getting caught up in the world of Harlem street economics." Now he pretends he's a "classic criminal/keep a gun by my genitals," and you no more believe him promising "nigga smack me I'm gonna smack him back" than you believed Alice Cooper promising no more Mr. Nice Guy or Elton welcoming his bitch back or Prodigy smacking their bitch up - Ma$e looks and sounds about as threatening as L.L. or Vanilla Ice. Despite complaining about not understanding the language of "people with short money" who "talk funny," he's low-self-esteemishly mumbly and mellow-toasted (in an early-EPMD pajama-slacker way) his own self. When background babes dote on him, he echoes Biggie's head-nodding cuddly/awkward aw-shucks chuckles and ungh-huh grunts, but unlike Biggie he's not remotely scary; he compares himself to Tickle Me Elmo over Teena Marie "Square Biz" samples, for crissakes. So his moments of sad-sack vulnerability feel way more trustworthy.
He asks fans to ponder which of their friends would die for them, then asks fans where they'd go and what they'd do and who'd they screw if they only had 24 hours left. The latter ominous riddle inspires a flock of varying voices to philosophize and fantasize about altruism, evening up scores, boinking bank tellers, spending final minutes with kids, and "out with a bang, you'll remember my name." My favorite is the guy who says, "Fuck it, I'd probably eat some fried chicken and drink some Nantucket," then insists on playing Lotto even though he won't be around to collect any winnings.
Puff Daddy, as even his ugliest and slugliest Biggie productions demonstrated, is of course a master of juxtaposition (Matthew Wilder with Grandmaster Flash?!), addicted to puffed-up grooves as catchy as ad jingles, nostalgic for the same Reagan-era club of culture as Romy and Michele's High School Reunion - "Puff drive Mercedes/take hits from the '80s/do a sound so crazy" goes Ma$e's big hit, "Feel So Good," with a chorus from Miami Sound Machine over the same Kool and the Gang horns that DJ Kool stole in "Let Me Clear My Throat." And Harlem World might be Puffy's definitive album just because it's his most upbeat, bumping and hustling across the dance floor as it wonders, "Why you standing on the wall with your hand on your balls" (plus more stuff about "Benjamins," natch).
Paranoid about "hatas" denying he's "real," Ma$e lets his "pants sag down to the floor/really doesn't matter as long as I score," his Puff-rap recalling poof-metal poodles Cinderella asking "Who's to care if I grow my hair to the sky?" in "Gypsy Road" a decade ago. Mainly, Harlem World is a concept album about a handsome young man's sex life or lack thereof: In "I Need To Be," Ma$e's homies pressure him to undress his date, but every time he makes a move to love her, 1-2-3 red light she stops him (apparently because he's scared of cunnilingus). Women cheat on him, or cheat on boyfriends with him, and he worries their beaus will beat him up - most hilariously in "Jealous Guy," a yearning six-minute Chi-Lites/ Stylistics falsetto-zodiac-sign-harmony parody as over the top as Oran "Juice" Jones or Cheech and Chong's "Basketball Jones." In "Lookin' at Me," our young stud even wears a tank top to the Greekfest with his family and picks up one Sandy-sans-panties and demands "gotta be a quickie/please no hickeys/'cause wifey's with me." But Sandy confides to an older co-worker who secretly tapes the conversation, and she devilishly keeps a blue dress with Ma$e's semen stain on it as a souvenir. Or maybe I'm mixing him up with somebody else.