At the turn of the decade, it seemed as though Timbaland — the producer behind many of the biggest beats of the previous 15 years — had finally quieted down. Now, at age 42, he’s back on top: In the past year and a half, he has co-produced nearly all of Justin Timberlake’s two volume The 20/20 Experience, most of Jay Z’s Magna Carta… Holy Grail and Beyoncé highlights like “Drunk in Love” and “Partition.” On the phone to promote “Whoever We Are,” his contribution to the Pepsi Beats of the Beautiful Game World Cup LP, he spoke with Rolling Stone about the song, the young rappers he’s been mentoring and why he thinks his next (and possibly final) solo album is his most innovative project ever.
Can you tell me about the birth of “Whoever We Are”?
I had this song from Rachel Assil, my new artist, and when she played me the song it was like, “Wow, this kind of fit what Pepsi people were talking about.” We try to say we’re planning and all this stuff, but when it comes to music you can never look back and be like, “How did this happen?” If you talk about it too much, it ain’t going to happen. That’s the point. So, we didn’t do to much talking. It just happened.
When you’re developing an artist like Rachel, what does that mean? What kind of guidance are you giving them?
I give them encouragement and I give them that talk. You have to be in there when I’m doing the talk. The talk is putting the battery pack in their back, like, “You could be a great, you could be just as great as me.”
Who are you working with besides her?
Well I have two artists I’m gonna put out. They are my special aliens that you never seen before on this Earth. The younger generation, we haven’t seen a star being born yet. We’ve seen Drake. Drake might have been the last star that we’ve seen, but we haven’t seen a superstar yet, like super, super-star. Drake was the last of them that I thought that we might have seen. Drake and [Rick] Ross. I would say Kendrick [Lamar] too. Those might be the last three.
What about Nicki Minaj?
That might be the only one. But we haven’t seen nobody else.
As far as producers outside of your clique, who are you looking at? Who’s motivating you?
I like DJ Mustard a lot. I think Mustard can be around for a minute. He gave everybody a style, he has to now switch it up. That’s what makes you great. Like, you come in and you have a hot flavor, but then, you’ve got to switch the flavor up a little bit. You’ve got to evolve, and I feel like he’s going to evolve. Like Hit-Boy, he’s gonna be good. Mike Will, I think he’s trying to figure something out. I think he’s on to something.
It’s been awhile since a Timbaland solo album — I’ve heard rumors that a new one might be coming.
Yeah, this is my Purple Rain solo album that I’m going to put out. I have no features on it. It’s called Opera Noir and it’s the most innovative work I’ve ever done. It’s all about truth and what’s going on around us. It’s about my personal truth: It’s one of the things that MediaTakeOut will care about, but I’m telling you what happened. I’m telling you: At this point, this happened. I’m telling you at this date, I’m telling you that I did this. I’m telling you that she did this or he did that. And just how I look, dropping all my weight, and how I look like a whole different person now, you’re gonna really understand. It’s about truth and what the world is facing, and we don’t even realize.
What do you mean it’s your Purple Rain?
It’s my grand finale. It’s my voila. This is why you call me Timbaland. This is why you say I’m the greatest who ever did it.
Grand finale? That implies that it’s the last one.
It could be, for like me doing solo, because it’s not about me. It’s about my artists, so you know, I’m just being the teacher. The people that I birth, I want to help them shape their careers because they have longevity. Mine, I’m at a stage where I want to enjoy my wife, I want to enjoy my family a little bit more. I just want to enjoy life. I worked so hard to get to this point that I haven’t really sat down to enjoy life the way I should enjoy it.
It ain’t spending money, it’s just simpleness of life, and I just want to get back to it. Like, when I was a kid going to high school dating a girl, you know? Treating life like we just had each other. When you’re in this music world, it’s hard to do that. So I’ll probably take a break.
Slow down a little bit…
This is a powerful album. I can’t do two of these. It’ll be like a part one of two, but the part two will be based around my TV series I got coming out on Fox, which is called Empire. That’s gonna be like a continuation of Opera Noir.
What’s the idea behind the TV series? I hadn’t heard about this.
It’s about music and the struggle to get into music. It’s a different way of approaching a typical musical film. It’s from the real aspect.
So is it like a Making the Band kind of thing?
Hell no, it’s not Making the Band. It’s not a band. This is real life. It’s not about making nothing. It’s almost like what we go through behind the scenes to make you interview me. It’s like the stuff you don’t see to make you want to ask these questions. Now you can relate something back to a question that you asked me and look at the series and be like, “Now that makes sense. Now I get it.”