Zaftig Beats

Such a maverick sensibility raises the question: Just where do these off-kilter ideas come from? More than one critic has compared Elliott's music to British drum and bass, whose affinity for jungle breakbeats and sci-fi effects Elliott and Timbaland seem to share (albeit slowed down, split in half, and panned wide). Elliott grows animated at such a notion. "For so long we've been hearing 'This sounds like drum and bass!'," she exclaims, throwing her hands up. "I'd never heard of drum and bass at all! After [Supa Dupa Fly was released] we went to London for the first time, and right away I made them bring me some CDs of drum and bass. I had to hear this stuff!"

And the verdict? "Well, if you've been attuned to drum and bass, and then you hear our music, you might find a similarity," she explains. "But I don't hear it, maybe because drum and bass is so fast! It's not something I would listen to every day, but I've heard some DJs doing some interesting stuff, even doing drum and bass remixes of our songs."

Elliott and Timbaland may have reached their aesthetic peak in late 1998, constructing the song "Are You That Somebody?" for teenage diva Aaliyah. In the hands of anyone else, the tune surely would have been a syrupy ballad. Elliott and Timbaland, however, gave the song a stop-start shuddering groove, with strange whirring noises circling the mix, and -- most delightful of all -- a baby cooing throughout. It's not a wholly original idea; Sly Stone used a crying infant on his 1974 album Small Talk. But it was Elliott and Timbaland who figured out how not only to push the sonic envelope, but to take that baby to the bank, scoring a monster hit in the process.

The chart success of "Are You That Somebody?" may have been a curse in disguise, however. Searching for something new, trying to run away from the very type of experimentalism that made her music so appealing in the first place, Elliott's Da Real World shows signs of strain. There's a grimness throughout the album, highlighted on "You Don't Know," where Elliott and rapper Lil' Mo engage in a verbal catfight. In 1997 such a track might have been cut playfully. Now it's leavened only by Timbaland's eyebrow-raised utterance: "Uh-oh." There are also disturbing lapses into the same commodity fetishism that clogs up so much of hip-hop today; the mind-numbing odes to Lexuses and gold jewelry on this CD were once precisely what Elliott refreshingly avoided.

Still, fears that Elliott may be about to bow to convention are unfounded. Instead chalk up the slight disappointment of Da Real World to growing pains. "I'm already looking to the year 3000," says Elliott decisively. "I don't consider what we do hip-hop or R&B. I'd rather find a new category.

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