I’ve been listening to Madonna’s new Timbaland produced single “4 Minutes.” I’m trying to determine if it’s gawd awful or genius. It totally sounds like a “Bad” era Michael Jackson song with a horn-infused hip hop “Dangerous” Michael Jackson edge. But MJ rip-offs aside, I can’t get over how self-referential this production is.
You’ve got Madonna, an artist who in the 90s who flat out said she wished she was black. And there’s Justin Timberlake who owes the success of his post-blond afro, boy band career to the work of black hip hop producers. Then there’s Timbaland, the genius, throwing together a mix that is one part The Jacksons “Can You Feel It” and one part a Mickey D’s bastardization of every beat Tim Mosley has ever created.
Then there’s Madonna, the “mother of reinvention,” still aggressively pursuing the youth market via Tim and Justin even though she’s fifty years old now. I’m not saying she should hang up the fishnet tights and crotch shots, but isn’t it getting a little silly? While her “Confessions On A Dancefloor” and “Music” were good, she hasn’t done anything truly earth shattering since “Ray of Light.” Her music has always been a live or die by the hot producers-o-the-minute she’s signed up with.
Then you have the whole inside joke of Madonna and Justin singing together. Justin, the ex-boyfriend of Britney Spears who Madonna famously got freaky with on the MTV Video Awards back in 2003 then did a duet on Spears’ track “Me Against the Music.” Justin who was all on Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson’s jocks. The same Jacksons Madonna was obsessed with in the 80s and 90s.
While this song is just kind of ridiculous for Madonna, it’s a stand-out for Justin. Madonna’s not known for her vocal chops and he basically over-powers her in the same way Beyonce’s ululating knifed up all his falsetto and subtlety on the second take of “Until the End of Time.” Madonna turns the ex-Mouseketeer into an R&B credibility God. Timberlake, no matter how you feel about him, has way more black acceptance and R&B cred than Madonna ever had.
When she bemoaned her lack of blackness in the 90s it was because she wanted to be taken seriously as an artist by the black community, but tragically, Madonna’s weak vocals kept her on the back burner. Despite making a serviceable R&B album out of “Bedtime Stories” she just didn’t have the shit it takes to compete in the brutal “Showtime At the Apollo” world of black music. And it didn’t help that black people already have one marginal singing pop sex Goddess. And her first name ain’t baby. It’s Janet. Miss Jackson if you’re nasty.
Until now Madonna always had the good sense not to do duets with black singers better than her (or white singers better than her for that matter). There were no *MJ, JJ, Stevie Wonder, Lenny Kravitz (and I don’t count “Justify My Love”), Patti LaBelle, Terrence Trent D’Arby, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Boys II Men, Mariah Carey or Beyonce collaborations. No George Michael, Boy George, Elton John, Michael MacDonald, Annie Lennox, Cher, Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguliera or Fergie duets. No one who could make her sound like crap. She flirted with R&B disaster on “Take A Bow” with Babyface, but that turned out wonderful, mostly because ‘Face is such an excellent producer.
But Justin finally found a popular vocalist he could make sound like shit. He’s ripping up and down “4 Minutes” all elated at being the hottest thing on this hip pop concoction. You can almost see the MJ-esque pirouettes he’s is doing in the studio while resisting the urge to accent the whole thing with “hee-hees!,” “ooh-hoos!” and “Shamons!” All Madonna can do to keep up is repeat her the pop assist she gave Brit on “Me Against the Music.” And even though MJ is a hot mess right now, the production of the song gives me hope that Tim will save a beat or two for black music’s own personal Howard Hughes because if this had been a Michael Jackson/Justin Timberlake production there would have been blood on the dance floor.
For real this time.
*Snob reader I Am Not Star Jones pointed out to me that Prince and Madonna sang a duet together, “Love Song” from “Like A Prayer.” I originally had him listed under Negroes Madonna avoided singing with. But she did not release it as a single, so on a technicality she was still playing chicken.