The Number Ones

April 21, 2007

The Number Ones: Timbaland’s “Give It To Me” (Feat. Nelly Furtado & Justin Timberlake)

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Here’s something that will always blow me away: One morning, at the peak of his success, Justin Timberlake woke up and decided that he’d go talk some shit about Prince. Prince has appeared in this column many times, and his influence hangs over the past 40 years of popular music. Without Prince, there’s no Justin Timberlake; Prince was one of JT’s main reference points when he was recording FutureSex/LoveSounds. One day, though, Prince said something vaguely sassy about “SexyBack,” and Timberlake decided that he had to clap back.

The big point of contention: Prince played an Emmy Awards afterparty in 2006, and he reportedly said this to the crowd: “For whoever is claiming that they are bringing sexy back, sexy never left!” That’s not too mean, right? Maybe it’s dismissive, but it’s also some variation on what everyone was saying in 2006, when the world had to grapple with the idea that Justin Timberlake was somehow bringing sexy back. Nevertheless, Timberlake went into a recording studio, and he sent some stuttering singsong shit-talk back in Prince’s direction: “If s-sexy never left, then why’s everybody on my shi-i-it? Don’t hate on me just because you didn’t come up with it.”

This wasn’t just Justin Timberlake getting defensive in the face of perceived disrespect. Timberlake also threw his imperial-phase numbers in Prince’s face: “Now, I saw you tryna act cute on TV, just let me clear the air/ We missed you on the charts last week — damn, that’s right, you wasn’t there.” It’s true that Prince hadn’t had a charting single since 2006, when “Black Sweat” peaked at #60. (Good song.) But still, he was Prince. Evidently, this was not how Justin Timberlake saw things. The song where Timberlake talked dissed Prince went to #1, confirming that the public was on JT’s side in this essentially-nonexistent beef. Amazing. What a heat check.

Justin Timberlake never says Prince’s name on his friend Timbaland’s #1 hit “Give It To Me,” and he’s never confirmed that he had Prince in mind with those lines. There were other theories at the time, too. Some people thought Timberlake was talking about Kevin Federline, which is fun to think about. Others thought Timberlake was mad about Janet Jackson talking about Nipplegate’s effect on her career in an Oprah interview, and that one is frankly too depressing to contemplate. But the prevailing theory, the one I like the best, is that Justin Timberlake was on his Icarus shit — that he really thought he was better than Prince, at least for this one brief moment.

Justin Timberlake was wrong, but you could see how he might’ve convinced himself. “Give It To Me” reached #1 nine months after Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous,” the song that kicked off an absolutely wild run of success for everyone involved. Timberlake had a cameo at the end of the “Promiscuous” video, and the three people in that scene essentially ran the pop charts for the next year.

FutureSex/LoveSounds and Furtado’s Loose, both largely produced by Timbaland and his protege Danja, were unstoppable pop-chart forces. Loose had two #1 hits. FutureSex had three. And just as both album cycles were winding down, Timbaland recruited both Furtado and Timberlake to settle a few scores and to crash the top of the Hot 100 one last time. “Give It To Me” was a total victory-lap hit, and it extended an all-time winning streak. At the end of the song, Timberlake leaves us with a kicker: “If you see us in the club, go on and walk the other way/ ‘Cause our run will never be over — not, at least, until we say.”

The idea of a Justin Timberlake/Prince nightclub brawl is almost too funny to consider. (Timberlake was in great shape, and he was also 23 years younger and almost a foot taller than Prince. Still, in a one-on-one situation, I think I’d put my money on Prince. Prince never had a reputation as a fighter, but I’m certain that he could handle his business.) Timberlake didn’t know it at the time, but that whole run was almost over, whether or not the people involved said so. That’s how pop music works. A run seems like it’ll last forever, and then it’s gone before anyone figures out what happened. It happened to Prince. It happened to Justin Timberlake and his friends. It’ll happen to Taylor Swift and Drake and everyone else, too. Credit where it’s due, though: Timberlake’s act of hubris helped push a petty, casual pop-star posse cut to the chart pinnacle, almost effortlessly.

I loved watching it happen. Timbaland is one of my all-time favorite musicians. That guy rearranged my idea of what pop music could do. Along with Dr. Dre, he introduced me to the concept of the producer auteur, and he made the radio a whole lot more exciting for years and years. Timbaland had been making his own records since the moment that he came to pop prominence, but those records seemed like vanity-project deals, since everyone agreed that Tim was not a terribly compelling rapper. Still, just at the moment before his music tipped into turgid diminishing-returns dance-pop, Timbaland came back with his biggest-ever run of chart hits, and he became the lead artist on a song that went to #1. I’d been rooting for Timbaland for years, and I got to enjoy his victory vicariously.

Timbaland was 35 years old when he scored his only #1 hit as lead artist, and he’d been making hits for more than a decade. The initial run of earthshaking brain-rewiring Timbaland productions — Ginuwine’s “Pony,” Aaliyah’s “One In A Million” and “If Your Girl Only Knew” — started in 1996. In 1997, Tim’s regular collaborator Missy Elliott became a star on the strength of the classic Tim-produced album Supa Dupa Fly. That same year, Tim and his rap partner Magoo — a Virginia Beach guy who sounded like Q-Tip if Q-Tip wasn’t actually very good at rapping — released their own debut album Welcome To Our World, and they got to #12 with the Missy/Aaliyah collaboration “Up Jumps Da Boogie.” Great song.

Timbaland and Magoo made two more albums, which were not terribly successful. They didn’t score any other major hits. Tim released a solo album called Tim’s Bio: Life From Da Bassment in 1998. Despite a bunch of big-star guest appearances, that album wasn’t a huge deal, either. (I bought the cassette, though. I did my part.) Timbaland kept appearing on his collaborators’ songs and showing his face in the videos, and his sound was so vivid and distinctive that you could always recognize one of his tracks the first time you heard it. But Timbaland was nobody’s idea of a pop star. Only one Tim’s Bio track made the Hot 100 at all: The Missy Elliott/Magoo collab “Here We Come,” which peaked at #92.

In the early ’00s, Timbaland seemed to lose his grip on the pop charts, and his Virginia Beach friends the Neptunes regularly overshadowed him. Timbaland had his big comeback when he stepped away from rap and R&B, into the bright-plastic dance-pop wonderland of Loose and FutureSex/LoveSounds. When Justin Timberlake toured behind FutureSex, Timbaland came with him, taking over the show for a sort of DJ-set intermission. (A whole lot of critics complained about Timbaland’s portion of the set. I got to hear those Missy and Aaliyah tracks on an arena-sized soundsystem, and I felt like I was staring into God’s eyes. No complaints here.) Timbaland had been all over those Timberlake and Nelly Furtado records, especially “Promiscuous.” Suddenly, the idea of Timbaland the pop star didn’t seem so far-fetched.

When Timbaland recorded his 2007 album Shock Value, he called in a whole lot of favors. Timbaland’s regular collaborators all appear on Shock Value, and so do big rap stars like Dr. Dre and 50 Cent. But many of the album’s guests come from way outside Tim’s orbit: Elton John, Fall Out Boy, the Hives, She Wants Revenge. Timbaland was feeling himself, and he wanted to show his full musical vision. Most of it didn’t work. Even as an unabashed Timbaland fan, I think Shock Value is a pretty bad album. Tim’s genre experiments felt scattered and half-hearted, and he seemed to be defaulting toward glossy club sounds that were way less interesting than his jittery weirdo-beats of old. But when the album hit, it hit. For me, “Give It To Me” hit.

In a lot of ways, “Give It To Me” was an obvious move. It was Timbaland getting back together with the two pop stars who were his closest collaborators in that era. Whereas Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake’s chart-toppers seemed like giant flag-planting statements, “Give It To Me” felt easy and tossed-off — just three friends fucking around together in the studio. The video is slapdash and low-budget, mostly filmed at an unspecified live show or in what appears to be a tour-bus studio. These people were all busy, and “Give It To Me” probably wasn’t a priority for any of them. But Timbaland and his friends still had some things that they wanted to say. They all wanted to talk some shit.

We’ve been over the Justin Timberlake verse. Timbaland had a target of his own: Scott Storch, the former Roots keyboardist who’d produced and co-written a ton of massive hits around 2005. Before breaking out as a star producer on his own, Storch had worked closely with Timbaland. Storch co-wrote Justin Timberlake’s 2003 smash “Cry Me A River,” and he played keyboard on the track, but he was apparently mad about not being credited as co-producer. (“Cry Me A River” peaked at #3. It’s a 10.) Timbaland was not sympathetic.

Timbaland didn’t play it coy about his “Give It To Me” verse. He confirmed right away that he was talking about Scott Storch. Tim didn’t need to say it; we could’ve figured it out on our own: “I’m a real producer, and you just a piano man/ Your songs don’t top the charts/ I heard ’em, I’m not a fa-a-an.” Storch’s hits were drying up at the time. He was blowing through tons of money, and he developed a serious and expensive cocaine habit. Eventually, Storch declared bankruptcy and went through rehab.

When Scott Storch heard “Give It To Me,” he clapped back at Timbaland with his own diss track “Built Like That”: “Your boy Danja gotta hate you with a passion, man/ He makes the hits while you taking all the credit, damn.” Those lines might’ve landed harder if “Built Like That” was even a remotely good song. Scott Storch was not a rapper, and he did not look comfortable attempting to play that role in the “Built Like That” video. Later on, Storch told Red Bull Music Academy that the beef was mostly being pushed by unspecified third parties and that he and Timbaland eventually squashed it “with one phone call.” Too bad Storch didn’t make that call before he shot the “Built Like That” video. He could’ve saved himself some embarrassment. (Storch apparently also got a “piano man” tattoo, which is funny.)

As for Nelly Furtado, she didn’t seem to fully buy into the diss-track concept. Furtado’s “Give It To Me” verse is mostly just her singing about how fly she is: “Love my ass and my abs in the video for ‘Promiscuous’/ My style is ri-dic-dic-diculous-ulous-ulous.” (There’s so much glitchy echo in Furtado’s verse that I wondered if she had trouble singing it on-beat, but I don’t really mind. The echo sounds cool as hell.) Furtado has one slightly slick line: “I seen you to try switch it up, but girl, you ain’t that dope.” Rumor has it that Furtado was slightly miffed about one line in Fergie’s “Fergalicious”: “I ain’t promiscuous, and if you were suspicious, all that shit is fictitious.” (“Fergalicious” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)

In any case, Nelly Furtado does not strike me as the type to get that upset about a stray line in someone else’s song. Fergie’s fellow Black Eyed Pea has a quick and possibly-unintentional cameo in the “Give It To Me” video, so the beef can’t have run too deep. Furtado was dubious about the whole idea behind “Give It To Me,” anyway. A few years later, she told Metro that she regretted participating in the song: “It was like the first ever pop diss song — a genre usually reserved for rap. We put a lot of negative energy out into the world.”

I happen to love diss tracks and, by extension, negative energy. I think that stuff is fun. “Give It To Me” is definitely a song driven by pettiness and ego, but the same is true of plenty of great pop songs. I don’t know if “Give It To Me” stands up as a great pop song, but I really like it. The power of “Give It To Me” isn’t in its scathing verses. Nobody really says anything that bad, and the verses are all short. Instead, it’s just fun to hear these three people, all at the peak of their powers, fucking around and having fun — especially over a beat like this one.

“Give It To Me” opens with one of those weird moments of Timbaland fucking around in the studio; he loved using those goofball doodles as intros back then. But then the beat locks in, and it’s hypnotic. The drums hammer relentlessly from all angles, while the evil little horror-movie synth-riff dances mockingly on the edge of the track. The track is full of sharp little stabs and sneaky melodies, and all three voices work beautifully together.

Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, and Nelly Furtado co-wrote “Give It To Me” with co-producer Danja and Attitude, the Alabama rapper who also co-wrote “Promiscuous.” These people are all professionals, and they know how these voices can all interlink. All three vocalists sit somewhere on the border between singing and rapping. Furtado’s voice is sharp and deadpan, and there’s a ghostly quality to her delivery. Timbaland’s voice is a preacher’s boom, and he seems to be having a blast: “When Timbo is in the party, everybody put up they hands.” Timberlake sounds pretty even when he’s talking trash, and his voice positively drips with confidence — the kind of outsized, irrational confidence that might lead you to disrespect Prince.

Confession time: In 2013, I was at SXSW, and Justin Timberlake and Prince both played not-so-secret small-venue shows on the same night. I went to see Justin Timberlake. He had a new album coming out that I was reviewing, and I knew that I was on the guestlist. I would’ve had to talk my way into the Prince show, and there’s a good chance that I would’ve been stuck outside, but I didn’t even try. I had a great time at the Timberlake show. He covered INXS’ “Need You Tonight” and previewed his whole 20/20 Experience touring setup; it was cool. But I should’ve gone to see Prince. Prince’s show that night was reportedly amazing, and then he died three years later. I never saw him live. It’s always been a regret. I wonder if “Give It To Me” had some subliminal effect on my decision.

If Justin Timberlake and Prince ever settled things, they never made it public. In 2018, a little while after Prince’s death, Justin Timberlake played the Super Bowl Halftime Show in Minneapolis, Prince’s hometown. During his set, which was nowhere near as good as the Halftime Show set that Prince played, Timberlake sang a minute of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” while Purple Rain footage played behind him. I guess it was a nice gesture, but it also seemed a little disingenuous. People remembered “Give It To Me,” and that cover played into the snowballing Timberlake-is-a-cornball narrative. (“I Would Die 4 U” peaked at #8. It’s a 10.)

We’ll get deeper into the whole cornball-Timberlake thing in a future column. After “Give It To Me,” Timbaland had more hits on deck. Tim followed that single by teaming up with his protege Keri Hilson and the rappers D.O.E. and Sebastian — the latter of whom is Timbaland’s brother — on “The Way I Are,” a club-pop single that sounded like an aural laser-light. That one was another big hit, peaking at #3. (It’s a 7. As lead artist, Keri Hilson’s highest-charting single is the 2009 Kanye West/Ne-Yo collab “Knock You Down.” That one also peaked at #3, and it’s another 7.)

But the Shock Value track that seemed to become most inescapable was the third single. Timbaland teamed up with OneRepublic, an LA-via-Colorado band who he’d signed to his Mosely Music Group label, for “Apologize,” a swoony ballad that only featured a little bit of Timbaland’s beat weirdness and hit right in the Coldplay/Snow Patrol/the Fray adult-contempo zone. That song peaked at #2, an it led to a long and ongoing hitmaking career for OneRepublic. (“Apologize” is a 6. Without Timbaland, OneRepublic’s highest-charting single is 2013’s “Counting Stars,” which also peaked at #2. It’s a 4. OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder wrote a whole lot of hits for other artists, and some of them will appear in this column.)

Shock Value went platinum, and Timbaland went deeper into dance-pop territory on his 2009 follow-up, the imaginatively titled Shock Value II. That album is really bad, and it bricked hard, though Timbaland did get to #11 with the Justin Timberlake collab “Carry Out.” I don’t remember that song at all. Timbaland hasn’t released another album since.

Timbaland has continued to produce hits for other artists, often working in collaboration with other producers. None of those tracks have gone to #1, but plenty of them have gotten close. Just two years ago, Timbaland co-produced J. Cole’s #5 hit “Amari.” (It’s a 5. J. Cole’s highest-charting single, the 2021 21 Savage/Morray collab “My Life,” peaked at #2. It’s a 7.) I wouldn’t be shocked if Timbaland eventually has his name on another #1 hit.

Mostly, though, Timbaland is now in the elder-statesman phase of his career. His tracks are hugely important to millions of people my age and younger. He can coast for the rest of his life, and I’ll still love him. A few years ago, Timbaland and Swizz Beatz co-founded the song-battle platform Verzuz, and the whole idea came from a pandemic-era night when Tim and Swizz battled each other on Instagram Live, playing their own beats at each other and talking shit about who was the best. I was watching that night, and it was a blast. Timbaland won.

GRADE: 8/10

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BONUS BEATS: Timbaland’s Jay-Z/Justin Timberlake collab “Laff At ‘Em” was reportedly supposed to be on Shock Value, but it wasn’t finished in time. Instead, the track was labelled as a “Give It To Me” remix when it came out, despite having very little in common with “Give It To Me.” Good song, though. Here it is:

(Jay-Z has been in this column as a guest a couple of times, and he’ll eventually be in here as lead artist.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Timbaland collaborator Madonna, who’s been in this column many times, singing “Vogue” over samples of a few different tracks, including “Give It To Me,” while touring in 2008:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s New York mixtape veteran Jae Millz pairing a sample of Nelly Furtado’s “Give It To Me” verse with the beat from ESG’s “UFO” on his 2013 track “Real As It Come”:

(Jae Millz doesn’t have any Hot 100 hits of his own, but he rapped on Young Money’s “BedRock,” a #2 hit in 2009. It’s a 7.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music, is out now via Hachette Books, and its style is ri-dic-dic-diculous-ulous-ulous. Buy it here.

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