It’s been done so much over the past decade or so that it’s starting to become a cliché. Aging artist who still has “it” (talent and musical ability) but doesn’t still have “it” (commercial appeal) teams with a series of younger artists and makes (or tries to make) an album that restores their popularity. The thing is, though: this plan doesn’t usually work. For every Supernatural by Santana, there’s a million artistically bankrupt tries at the same thing-like uh, Santana’s last two albums.
The latest artist to receive this treatment is Brazilian keyboardist Sergio Mendes. Mendes reached the height of his popularity in the mid-‘60s, when the cool, lounge-y songs (including Beatles & Simon & Garfunkel covers) recorded with the combo Brasil ‘66 led to his being one of the first Latin American music superstars. Sergio’s still been working all this time, but he hasn’t been near a Top 40 chart since 1983’s adult contemporary prom ballad “Never Gonna Let You Go”.
Timeless is a noble pursuit, and the guest roster is impressive, covering a who’s who of modern urban music: John Legend, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Black Thought, Justin Timberlake. However, the brain behind this project is the Black Eyed Peas’ Will.I.Am, and if you think that Mendes’ classy piano stylings would make for an awkward match with the guy responsible for writing “My Humps”, then you’re not way off base.
Actually, my issue with Will here has nothing to do with the overall production or sound of the album. He and Mendes do a good job staying true to Sergio’s original style, while adding just a few modern touches: a little light turntable scratching here, some drum machines there, a bit of sampling (mostly from Mendes’ own records-although the “Funky Drummer” loop buried in the Jill Scott collaboration “Let Me” is excellent). I would have been perfectly content with this album had Will just played the back. Unfortunately, the guy (who, in terms of MC skills, is somewhere between MC Hammer and Carmen Electra) ruins nearly half of the album (he appears on seven of its 15 tracks) with his atrocious rapping. I suppose it could be worse. He could have had all the OTHER Black Eyed Peas rhyming on every other song. Maybe he should have let the badly missed Pharoahe Monch (who rips it on the Timberlake-written, war-themed “Loose Ends”) rhyme a little more and we could have called it a draw.
Let’s go back to that Jill Scott song for a minute. Scott, one of the finest vocalists of this generation, gives a sublime, Billie Holiday-esque reading of the seductive ballad “Let Me”. After Scott’s first verse, Will barges in with an idiotic sing/rap. It’s akin to having a lovely floral display, then having a buzz saw come in and chop all your flowers to pieces.
Not to say there’s nothing to enjoy here. “Please Baby Don’t” pits the classy John Legend against some fine Rhodes work by Mendes. The song is reminiscent of both Bacharach and David’s mildly Latin-ized ‘60s work and Stevie Wonder’s occasional experiments with Latin music. Stevie himself shows up on “Berimbau/Consolacao”, with one of the more fun and playful performances I’ve heard from anyone in a while—and the man does it all on harmonica, not singing a word. The album’s title track proves that while India.Arie still overdoes it a bit on the “love everybody”/hippie chick thing, she’s got a vocal style to be reckoned with. Equally appealing are experiments with dancehall reggae (“Bananeira”, with Mr. Vegas) and a samba/reggaeton/hip-hop en Espanopl hybrid (“Samba Da Bencao” featuring Marcelo).
That shortlist of highlights proves that Timeless had the capability to be an exceptional album. However, someone mistakenly told Will that his talent deserved to be showcased more than the other guest artists on this album, and it winds up turning what could have been a fantastic genre cross-pollination experiment into a slightly better than average album almost ruined by a guy who needs someone to tell him to stay on the other side of the microphone a little more.