Image credit: Kyknoord

Pop music producers are the invisible hands behind every smash hit single: they envision the overall product, compose the track, co-write the lyrics and hone the singer’s performance. The popstar contributes their own talent for co-writing, performing and selling the song; it’s a relationship akin to that of film director and actor.

Welcome to Mixer Stadium, where today we’ll test the mettle of two young challengers against the Iron Chef of music producers in the twenty-first century. Timbaland’s our Iron Producer, the man to beat. Timothy ‘Timbaland’ Mosley first gained prominence producing albums for Aaliyah and Ginuwine back in the mid-nineties. His production catalogue is immense, and with cameos in many of the songs he produces, he’s almost the Stan Lee of the music industry.

Enter the challenger duo: Terius ‘The-Dream’ Nash and his frequent collaborator Christopher ‘Tricky’ Stewart. They’ve been working together since 2003, and their songs have garnered consistent chart success. Can these hot young producers topple Timbaland to take the coveted Iron Producer headphones? Let’s find out, using, using the totally scientific method of subjectively judging six songs.

Round 1: Independent Women

 ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)’ vs ‘Get Ur Freak On’

The-Dream and Tricky forged an erratic rhythm with ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)’, complete with air-raid synth blips that emerge from the shadows to ram home each chorus. The jumpy beat enhances the staccato manner of Beyoncé’s muscular vocals. It’s without doubt a catchy number, complemented by ‘one of the best music videos of all time’, which also spawned a dance craze.

The Timbaland-produced ‘Get Ur Freak On’, by Missy Elliott, dates back to 2001, but has stayed high on many bestof lists ever since. Timbaland wraps the song around six notes borrowed from bhangra (a Punjabi style of music and dance), layering in jungle beats, Japanese and Hindi phrases, and Elliott’s fantastical hip-hop stylings. The song moves in fits and starts, and my negligible white-girl booty will never conquer it on the dance floor. But the fact that it still sounds fresh after eleven years attests to its innovative genius – a mind-bendingly unique sound that ‘Single Ladies’ can’t outshine.

Scores: Timbaland – 1; Tricky and The-Dream – 0

Round 2: Mouseketeer Funk Battle

‘Me Against the Music’ vs ‘SexyBack’

The-Dream and Tricky first worked together on ‘Me Against the Music’, which sees Britney Spears with back-up from Madonna, who appears oddly pimp-styled in the video embodying a rawer dance aesthetic than in her previous sexually precocious pop offerings. Britney’s husky-voiced fast-flowing verses give this song attitude, signalling her aim of projecting a more mature image on her fourth album.

Timbaland’s ‘SexyBack’, meanwhile, continued his partnership with Britney’s former sweetheart Justin Timberlake. The song’s underlying funk rhythms have a similar quality to those in ‘Me Against the Music’, but the differences lie in the industrial, slashing chords and Timberlake’s rock-heavy delivery. It’s a combination that indelibly imprints ‘SexyBack’ on my brain, while five minutes after hearing ‘Me Against the Music’ I struggle to retain any remnants of its melody.

Scores: Timbaland – 2; Tricky and The-Dream – 0

Round 3: Breakouts

‘Umbrella’ vs ‘Try Again’

The-Dream and Tricky wrote ‘Umbrella’ for Britney Spears, offering it to Rihanna only after Spears’ label rejected it. The-Dream was initially uncertain whether Rihanna was the right voice for the song, but her singing of the ‘ella, ella, ella’ line both persuaded him and shot Rihanna to stardom. New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones called it ‘a sappy song that sounds totally unsappy’, and it certainly meets that standard. But Jay-Z’s rapping and the signature refrain don’t do enough to elevate this solidly performing song above its peers.

Is Timbaland’s work on Aaliyah’s ‘Try Again’ better? Aaliyah was Timbaland’s first muse, and he worked with her closely until her tragic death in a plane crash in 2001. ‘Try Again’ appeared on the soundtrack to Aaliyah’s 2000 film Romeo Must Die, and it was the first song to top the US Billboard charts based on radio airplay alone (that is, without being released as a single). The mellifluous vocals blend seamlessly with the scratchy bassline, and the staying-power message of the chorus meshes with Aaliyah’s image as a tough but warm-hearted girl, making the song truly memorable.

Scores: Timbaland – 3; Tricky and The-Dream – 0

And the winner is …

With a vehement 3–0 smackdown (ouch!), Timbaland remains firmly in control of the mixing desk. But keep an eye on these young challengers, who will no doubt take a few hints from the Timbaland playbook and try again.

It’s goodbye from Mixer Stadium, but what do you think about the verdict – is Timbaland the rightful victor?

Nikki Lusk is a Killings columnist and an editor based in Melbourne. She matches books to music at The Book Tuner.