Talk to any of Timothy "Timbaland" Mosley's friends, and you'll hear the same thing: that just a couple of years ago he was a totally different man. They'll tell you that he had lost his way, becoming depressed, overweight and contemptuous of the severely minimal beats that fueled hits by new artists like Future and Migos. He hadn't had a major success since Beyoncé's 2013 self-titled LP; his marriage was faltering; and his closest industry friends, the producers Pharrell Williams and Swizz Beatz, were concerned enough that they were checking in to give him pep talks. "I felt like I wasn't committed, I was riding off ego," says Timbaland, 45, looking back. "It was really about me neglecting my gift. As a producer and a soundmaker, I had to find out what God had in store for me."
Today things couldn't be more different for the producer, who is cheerfully chowing down on a bunless burger at a New York restaurant in November. Since the mid-1990s, the starkly futuristic robo-funk soundscapes he crafted for artists like Missy Elliott, Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake have shaped and reshaped modern pop and hip-hop. Now he's on track to have his hottest year in a decade, working with an entire Grammy ceremony's worth of talent on a slew of projects that are just beginning to make their way into the world. Foremost, he says he just wrapped up Timberlake's upcoming (and as yet officially unannounced) album, which will receive a massive boost when the star plays the Super Bowl halftime show in February.
"The music we just made?" Timbaland says, shaking his head. "It's gonna put him on another plateau." He has a deeply soulful single, "Pray," on Sam Smith's chart-topping new LP, which the singer performed on Saturday Night Live in October. Timbaland has launched collaborations with a new generation of rap talent, including Young Thug and Ty Dolla $ign. And he's been in the studio with Jay-Z, Zayn Malik, Chris Martin, Wiz Khalifa and Zac Brown, while also making clever moves into the booming post-"Despacito" Latin market with tracks like Wisin and Bad Bunny's "Move Your Body." "His music shaped me as an artist and as a songwriter," says Smith. "He works with so much kindness and attention to detail, and even after all of his success, he still loves music more than ever."
At New York's hip ABC Kitchen, a favorite spot when Timbaland is visiting from his home in Miami, he shows off the results of his intense boxing-based fitness regimen (inspired, he says, by the Rock and Kevin Hart) in a skintight gray Nike tracksuit. He's lost 40 pounds, and isn't done yet. "I've never felt better," he says. "I'm doing stuff I never knew I could do." At the same time, he's found new ways of working, increasingly skipping big, expensive studios to make tracks at home using the software Ableton Live – which he rocks while wearing headphones and a rig called a Subpac, a backpack-slash-vest gizmo with speakers built into it. "You put it on and it makes you feel like you're in the studio," he says. "The sound is three-dimensional."
So what inspired this burst of productivity? Midway through lunch, Timbaland lowers his voice and leans forward. "I was on drugs, dude," he says. "I was on OxyContin." Timbaland started taking pain medication in his thirties, to help with nerve issues resulting from a gunshot wound he suffered as a teenager. But his use spun out of control, and as his drug intake increased, his chart success declined, he blew through a lot of his money and his marriage collapsed – fueling a vicious cycle of depression and addiction. "Music is a gift and curse," he says.
"Once you're not popping, it plays with your mind. The pills helped block out the noise – I'd just sleep all day. I remember Jay-Z told me one time, 'Don't do no more interviews' – because I was saying crazy shit." His now-girlfriend, Michelle, recalls that at the end Timbaland was taking doses so high that she was genuinely worried he'd die in his sleep. "It was so bad, to the point where I couldn't even sleep," she says. "I'd put my hand right by his nose, just to see if he was still breathing." He eventually did suffer what he believes to be a near-death overdose while sleeping three years ago. "All I can tell you is that there was a light," he says. "I woke up trying to catch my breath, like I was underwater. But through that whole thing I saw life – I saw where I would be if I don't change, and where I could be if I did." The following day he began weaning off the pills, and soon after made a clean break – which resulted in a brutal period of withdrawal. "But I thought about Michael Jackson," he says. "I didn't want to be old and taking these pills."
He's not judgmental about other people's partying – he still smokes some weed, and is enjoying a whiskey cocktail with lunch – but he feels compelled to talk about his experience in the wake of the deaths of Chris Cornell, a friend and collaborator who had long battled addiction, and Prince, who was probably Timbaland's greatest music hero. "I came from the era of drug dealers [making rap hits]," he notes. "Now we're in the era of drug users."
He especially wants young fans and musicians to be aware that counterfeit pain pills could contain powerful opiates like fentanyl, and for the music industry as a whole to be more cognizant of the prevalence of depression in the hip-hop community. "These kids come from a place where they don't have money, don't have a real home," he says. "It affects them, and you hear it in the music." (Less than a week after this interview, the rapper Lil Peep, 21, who had struggled with drug use and depression, died before a concert in Arizona of what appeared to be a Xanax overdose.)
These days, Timbaland is focused on just a few things: being a parent to his 10-year-old daughter, Reign, getting seriously fit and making as much great music as possible. He's cranking away on a solo LP, which will be out next year and features collaborations with Timberlake, Malik and Rick Ross. He's even come to appreciate the sounds he hears on the radio by producers, like Metro Boomin, he once maligned – and has sought out young MCs like the much-hyped Florida rapper $ki Mask the Slump God to push hip-hop sonics to the next level. "Right now, I feel like what I can do with my legacy is to give back," Timba-land says. "Which means finding the youth of today. Look at Quincy Jones – he was 50 when he did Thriller! What's my Thriller!