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Album Reviews: Timeless by Sergio MendesLove him or hate him, Will.i.am is not-so-quietly emerging as one of the most original producers in pop music. "Originality" is not a word often associated with the Black Eyed Peas frontman -- he's more apt to dismissed as too derivative, too corny, his influences and samples too obvious, his pop sensibilities too pandering. How fitting then, that Will's latest non-Peas project is Timeless, a collaboration with another true original whose music was often written off, in its day, as corny and derivative: Sergio Mendes.
In the '60s, Mendes and his group Brasil '66 did more to popularize Brazilian music in America and around the world than any artist before or since, but you'll seldom hear him get any credit for it. That's because Mendes' brand of samba-laced cocktail jazz lacked both the cultural purity of his mentor, the great Antonio Carlos Jobim, and the sophistication of other crossover artists like João Gilberto. Instead, Mendes' music, much like Will.i.am's, was and is unapologetically populist. He whitewashed classic Brazilian tunes like "Bananeira" and "Mas Que Nada" of their hip-shaking sexuality, added bossa nova beats to the Beatles and Burt Bacharach, and generally gave the music snobs fits by making easy listening music that was both flawlessly executed and enormously popular.
Will.i.am clearly saw a kindred spirit in the old Brazilian pop guru, and set out with Timeless to take Mendes' music and rework it for the hip-hop generation. The result, somewhat surprisingly, is a triumph from start to finish, and ranks with either artist's best work. Timeless is a sunny summer beach party of a record, with a warm, sensual vibe that evokes the breezy sound of Mendes' classic Brasil '66 records without ever sounding like a mere rehash or tribute album. If pop radio is willing to play it, it should be a massive hit.
The formula throughout most of Timeless is simple: Take classic Brazilian tunes popularized by Brasil '66 and either sample or reinterpret them with a more hip-hop sensibility and plenty of guest stars. The aforementioned "Mas Que Nada" and "Bananeira" turn up here, enlivened by the Black Eyed Peas and dancehall singer Mr. Vegas , respectively, as do other familiar tunes like "E Menina (Hey Girl)" and "Slow Hot Wind," here sampled as part of new tune called "That Heat" featuring Will.i.am and Erykah Badu. Unless you're a real purist, it's fun to hear these familiar melodies resurface in Will and Mendes' clever new arrangements.
The album's guest stars run the gamut, from old American pros like Stevie Wonder and Black Thought of The Roots to young Brazilian upstarts like rapper Marcelo D2. But the album's two best moments come courtesy of two young Americans, John Legend and Justin Timberlake. "Please Baby Don't," a Legend tune set to one of Mendes' signature, laid-back sambas, is a perfect little pop song that truly lives up to the Timeless name, while Timberlake's soulful chorus elevates "Loose Ends" to an pop/R&B anthem on a par with "Where is the Love?" That both these young singers can slot so effortlessly into the Mendes sound is a testament to how effective and broadly appealing it is. Timeless should win Mendes in particular, and Brazilian music in general, a whole new generation of fans. -- Andy Hermann
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