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Timbaland Just Added Fuel to Our Growing Rap Dystopia

The legendary producer’s use of AI-generated vocals in Biggie’s likeness sets another perilous precedent

Timbaland Biggie

Erika Goldring/Getty Images; Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images; Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Maybe there’s an alternate universe where musicians are currently banding together against AI, opting to blackball anyone complicit in its rapid ascension from a viral sideshow into a thorn in the industry’s side. But that’s not the case on this planet, where prominent artists like Grimes and now Timbaland are diving headfirst into artificial intelligence. On Wednesday, Timbaland uploaded a video to his Instagram featuring a snippet of an AI concoction of “Biggie” rapping over one of his beats. “All right so, I’m sitting here with my brother, and we know that it’s a lot of talk about AI and we know how the feelings of violating certain things,” he says in the clip. “But let me tell you something: I got a solution, I’m working on it. It’s gon’ be beneficial to everybody.”

The song wasn’t a remix utilizing unearthed Biggie verses, but instead, vocals utilizing similar tools as those used in the viral AI-generated Drake and The Weeknd track, “Heart on My Sleeve.” It does a decent job of emulating Big’s tremulous baritone, but there are still moments that sound off — because it’s not actually him. The AI version of “Biggie” drops modern slang like “she say it’s not giving” and references rap history that postdates his 1997 demise. “I always wanted to work with Big, and I never got a chance to — until today,” Timbaland continues. “It came out right!”

There’s a widespread perception that AI’s infiltration of rap is being spearheaded by figures with none of the magic of the artists they’re depicting. But this time, the culprit is an unquestionably canonical producer. Timbaland has long been a vocal proponent of AI as a benefit for the music industry. If whatever his “solution” is for AI has the cultural weight of Verzuz, his other co-creation, we’re in for a ride.

Posthumous records are already a polarizing reality; under a tweet reporting that Pop Smoke has no more vocals in his vault, an account tweeted, “Let the AI pump out a few more albums.” Someone just might do that with no respect for Pop’s artistry or loved ones. Still, some listeners were excited about Timbaland’s “Biggie” verse. Offset commented under the post, “Man this Shìt sound hard asf🔥🔥🔥” But another comment noted, “I really don’t know how to feel about this (as a huge BIG fan). This is hard asf but, all I keep asking myself is…if I was Big would I want people making their own version of me?” Therein lies the confusion over AI vocals, especially those depicting deceased artists.

As Pharrell recently told us, artificial intelligence is nothing new, but it’s permeated the music industry in new ways over the past year. And while some, like Timbaland, feel like it represents opportunity, others sense that it’s an impending tidal wave of precarity in a world already too eager to exploit artists. Timbaland tagged famed engineer Guru in his post, who previously noted, “We have to protect the rights of the artist. Not only artists but everyone in society. People should not be able to take your Name, Image, and Likeness without permission. We have to add the voice to this law.”

Obviously, Biggie is not here to grant permission to use his likeness, just like he wasn’t for the Kardashians when they put him on a shirt, or for gentrifying Brooklyn hipsters who paint him on murals and co-opt “Spread love it’s the Brooklyn way,” the original “I’m a progressive white person” badge before “Black Lives Matter.” They’d probably never live in his era of Brooklyn (which is why it was so underserved), but apparently, it doesn’t matter because he’s not here to point that out. He was killed at 24 in what many believe was a foolish war of egos instigated by vessels of an industry that went on to get every penny they could out of him. He’s had his vocals splotched together and sold with artists who debuted years after his 1997 death. His legacy is akin to a cloth that’s been wrung bone-dry. And now that figurative rag is set to be artificially doused all over again.

From Rolling Stone US