For many years now, pop stars hoping to reinvent themselves have sought out Timbaland. The production genius was at the helm of Justin Timberlake’s 2006 album FutureSex/LoveSounds, which not only helped the ex-NSync star avoid the dreaded sophomore slump but ushered in a fresh new electronic energy for pop. That same year, Timbaland also assisted Nelly Furtado’s transition from folksy singer-songwriter to edgy dance-pop starlet on Loose, which yielded the massive hits “Promiscuous” and “Maneater.”
Timbaland’s two Shock Value solo albums have expanded audiences for unlikely rock collaborators like the Hives, She Wants Revenge, Fall Out Boy, Daughtry, and especially OneRepublic, who became sensations thanks to Timbaland’s remix of “Apologize.” And of course, not only did Timbaland help pave the way for Beyoncé’s bold Lemonade set by imparting his influence on the risqué Beyoncé tracks “Drunk in Love,” “Partition,” and “Blow,” but way back in 1996 he played a huge role in the reboot of late R&B-pop songbird Aaliyah’s career, giving her a smoky signature sound to go with her mysterious persona and turning her into a superstar with hits like “One in a Million” and “4 Page Letter.”
So Timbaland (real name: Timothy Mosley) is an ideal choice to host The Pop Game, Lifetime’s new music competition series, which is essentially a bootcamp for five aspiring teen artists and their parents. Even though odds are slim that The Pop Game Season 1 will yield music’s next American Idol-style sensation, the superproducer is enjoying the artist-development aspect of the process. “All the people I’ve worked with, they were special,” he tells Yahoo Music. “But I never got a chance to work with them in the beginning. I’m having fun building and finding out what’s special [with these artists]. That’s something I’ve never experienced, really.”
Timbaland can also relate to the contestants. He remembers when he and fellow A-list hitmaker Pharrell Williams were just a couple of high school kids in Virginia Beach, trying to get recognition for their pre-fame group Surrounded by Idiots. “Being from Virginia, we had to go hard to figure out stuff,” he explains. “We came in the game at a different time, where you had to be great or you wouldn’t get noticed. I wouldn’t get played on the radio if something did not stick out.”
Having a distinct sound has been key in Timbaland’s career, and that helped him secure another recent television opportunity: serving as music director for the Fox hip-hop drama series Empire, a role he held for the first two seasons. “I’m a risk-taker,” he says. “I reinvent myself. Empire was a stepping stone. I had other things that I wanted to do in TV and film, and [director] Lee [Daniels] was a great mentor for me.”
Combining music and film will be a big focus of Timbaland’s next album, the long-anticipated Opera Noir; the producer compares the ambitious project to Prince’s Purple Rain movie and soundtrack. Earlier in its development, Timbaland discussed Opera Noir with Daniels and Epic Records chairman/CEO L.A. Reid, and Daniels gave him some helpful advice. “He’s pointing me in the right direction, so he’s there for me,” Timbaland says. He credits Reid with helping him coin the album’s title. “I played the music for L.A. Reid,” Timbaland says. “He said it sounded like a ‘black opera.’ That’s what it is.” The release date is still to be determined.
Unfortunately, Timbaland doesn’t have any updates on the next release from his longtime musical collaborator, Missy Elliott, who recently dropped the hot new single “I’m Better” and announced her first concert since 2008, playing Los Angeles’s FYF Festival this coming July. “Well, that’s on Missy,” he says when asked about the status of new Elliott music. “She’s got to be ready to put that out. When it’s right, it’s right. She knows when it’s right.”
Timbaland understands. It’s been seven years since he released his last solo album, 2009’s Shock Value II, and he won’t release Opera Noir until he feels it’s ready. In the meantime, The Pop Game airs on Lifetime Fridays, at 11 p.m./10 p.m. central.