Another battle is raging within hip-hop, and for once it's not personal. Instead, it's a sonic war, a struggle between forces who want to branch out (and grow more positive-minded) and those who feel the music should remain stark and unrelenting, true to its bombed-out-tenement roots. Nowhere has rap's inner conflict been more apparent than on new albums by one of the music's most innovative producers Timbaland.
On his work with Missy Elliott, Timbaland (né Tim Mosley) pulled hip-hop into more melodic, R&B-centric areas, an approach also heard on his first solo project, Tim's Bio: From the Motion Picture: Life From Da Bassment. Much like another Southern producer, Atlanta's Jermaine Dupri, the Virginia Beach-based Timbaland prefers a sensuous flow (adding staccato beats to eliminate all traces of wimpiness), and he knows the value of letting arrangements breathe. The first track, ''I Get It On,'' a duet with female rapper Bassey, has a clipped Latin-funk groove, a vibe that continues on a cut that cops the Spider-Man theme (''Here We Come'') and ones laced with chanting female backups and slow-jam, Morse-code beats.
Naturally, Timbaland needs to prove he's hard and, to do so, recruits a bevy of new-school-rap guests. Nas and Jay-Z, who seem to make a secondary living from cameo appearances on other people's records, mostly serve up de rigueur thug-life boasts and ''bitch'' put-downs. (When Ludichris raps about wanting to fondle a ''Fat Rabbit,'' he's not talking about a visit to the local pet store.) But when Timbaland works with women, his touch blossoms. ''3:30 in the Morning,'' his and Elliott's showcase for newcomer Virginia Williams, is a hip-hop-soul diamond. Even better is ''Talking on the Phone,'' a simmering jealousy tirade by Kelly Price that's wrapped in a blanket of outer-space synthpop. Timbaland won't want to hear this, but perhaps he should display his, well, feminine side more often?
With its reference to Spider-Man and its liner-note nods to Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, Tim's Bio is steeped in comic-book culture, a trend that allows rappers to indulge in violent fantasies that have no connection to reality. B+