Being the focal point of a successful “boy band” isn’t always a surefire recipe for success. Justin Timberlake’s career following *NSYNC was not a sure thing. For every Michael Jackson that spun off and became…well, you know, there were acts like New Edition’s Ralph Tresvant and New Kids On The Block’s Jordan Knight-guys that experienced a modicum of success, but nothing comparable to the level that the group they were in experienced. Hell, some boy band spinoffs out and out flopped. Anyone remember the Nick Carter solo album that came out barely a week or two after Justified? Nope, we barely do either. So, Timberlake’s evolution into the it-boy of pop circa 2013 was not a guarantee. There was a little bit of luck involved, some creativity, and a handful-more than a handful, actually-of great songs. Let’s have a look.
Justified (2002)- The Neptunes (only the hottest production team in pop music) hooked up with Timberlake at the tail end of *NSYNC’s run, producing the hit single “Girlfriend.” It seemed like a natural conclusion that Pharrell and Chad would go on to assist in establishing Justin as a solo artist. With Timbaland and Brian McKnight along for the ride, the scene was set for Justified, which became a Gammy-winning smash, gained the critical cred JT needed to continue his career and officially ensured that Justin would never have to go back to *NSYNC again. Although Timbo and Justin would become more identified with one another over the years, it can be argued that, at least on this album, the Neptunes had a little bit more musical simpatico with Justin. “Like I Love You” remains a sizzling dance song, “Rock Your Body” and “Last Night” pack wallops, as well. Never mind that the songs rip MJ’s “Get On The Floor” and Usher’s Neptunes-produced “U Don’t Have To Call,” respectively. The midtempo tracks “Take It From Here” and “Let’s Take A Ride” are winners as well, not to mention that they have slightly less obvious frames of reference. While Timbaland’s “Cry Me A River” was the track that officially made Justin a solo force (and co-composer Scott Storch is unfairly left out of any conversations that have to do with this song,) Tim is also responsible for the album’s two biggest duds-“Right For Me” (a beatbox heavy Bubba Sparxxx collabo) and the anonymous “(And She Said) Take Me Now,” which features a phantom Janet Jackson a year and a half before Nipplegate effectively ended that friendship. Although Justified is the Timberlake album that sounds least like a true collaboration and more like hot producers brandishing songs genetically engineered to hit the top of the charts, it might be the most consistently satisfying of Timberlake’s four solo albums to date. It may not reach the delirious highs of a “My Love,” but there’s also nothing as bad as, say, “Losing My Way” or “Damn Girl,” either. It’s certainly better than its successor, and that’s even with the lyrical humdinger that is “Nothin’ Else” (“you’re out of this world, except you’re not green.”) Maybe someone should’ve sent JT to a writing class back then, eh? Never mind. He did pretty well for himself anyway. Grade: B
FutureSex/LoveSounds (2006): On his second solo album, Justin decided to table his Michael Jackson obsession and focus on imitating Prince instead. The lyrics are significantly randier than on Justified, and the songs are a little less top 40-centric. There are definite points on FS/LS where Justin sounds like a kid trying to sit at the grown-ups table, and I can’t co-sign a series of follies that occur over the course of the album’s running time.
The ill-conceived Three 6 Mafia collaboration “Chop Me Up”? The will.i.am assisted “Damn Girl?” Rubbish. Even the Rick Rubin-produced Donny Hathaway tribute “Another Song (All Over Again)”, which should have been a slam-dunk in theory, goes nowhere. Matter of fact, FutureSex might be the single most overrated pop album of the past decade. There’s a reason that John Mayer’s far superior Continuum beat it for Best Pop Album at that year’s Grammys.
One major Achilles heel is no Neptunes (after Pharrell and Chad bolted from their deal with Arista Records, a condition was that they couldn’t work with JT for a period of time.) A second, even more major Achilles heel is Justin’s songwriting. A Rolling Stone cover story around that time quoted someone (it may have been Timbo’s
ghost-producer production apprentice, Danja) as saying that Justin freestyles his lyrics in the manner of Jay Z. Well, that may work for emcees (and even then, Jigga is in rarified air,) but Justin probably could’ve benefited from a bit of sharpening of the old pen. Want proof? Listen to “Losing My Way” and consider the fact Justin was 25 when he wrote those lyrics (“Hi, my name is Bob and I work at my job…”) For reference, Stevie had released Music Of My Mind, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, Innervisions and Talking Book by 25. Michael had written “Billie Jean,” and “Beat It” by that point. Prince had released Dirty Mind and 1999. Lennon and McCartney had created Help! Revolver and Rubber Soul.
Seriously. Go read the lyrics to “Losing My Way” and ask yourself if a song that banal would fit on any of the above classic pop albums.
I’m not completely hating. “My Love” is amazing, “Until The End Of Time” is Timberlake’s best downtempo song (and the remix with Beyonce is completely unnecessary) and the “I Think She Knows” portion of the “Lovestoned/I Think She Knows” medley suggests that Justin may have even had a killer indie rock album in him. However, the largely excellent first half of FutureSex is not good enough to save the largely awful second half. Grade: B-
The 20/20 Experience Part 1 (2013): The fact that Justin was able to take so much time off and come back to the same size audience (more or less) speaks highly to his magnetism and personality, if not talent. And to his credit, Justin never said that he spent the time between FutureSex and the first part of 20/20 slaving away in the studio, deliberating the way, say, Michael did between Thriller and Bad or Bad and Dangerous. JT works quickly, and that shows fairly often. His music often has a tossed-off quality to it. This can work to his advantage, or his detriment. Thankfully, on the first part of 20/20, it works largely to his advantage. For the first time in his solo career, the music sounds as much like “Justin Timberlake” as it sounds like whatever producer is behind the boards. Aside from the intro, I wouldn’t recognize “Suit And Tie” as a Timbaland record at all.
I’ll also say that the one-producer (or production team) style suits Justin way better than the patchwork quilt that made for most of the shitty moments on FutureSex. Justin hasn’t become a much better lyricist (and let’s face it, that ship has probably sailed) but knows how to work the shit out of a groove. Without a legit slow jam, 20/20 Part 1 is more or less a non-stop dance floor wrecking ball. Despite obnoxiously long running times, just about every track here is a winner. Actually, the fact that I’m not terribly bothered by the six or seven-minute songs, most of which could’ve very feasibly been trimmed by a minute or two, speaks highly to this album’s quality. The guaranteed floor-filler “Strawberry Bubblegum” slyly references *NSYNC’s “Pop” (while cross-referencing any number of Michael Jackson songs,) while the propulsive “Tunnel Vision” and the slyly funky “Pusher Love Girl” also provide quality jollies. “Mirrors” completes the love-story trilogy that began with “Cry Me A River” and continued with “What Goes Around,” and provides a Hollywood happy ending…at least until Justin and Jessica get divorced and Justin writes a song about that.
Album closer “Blue Ocean Floor” sounds like a mood piece that maybe should’ve been left on the blue ocean floor, but that’s my only major complaint. Maybe my standards have lowered, maybe Justin has actually matured somewhat as a songsmith, but the first part of 20/20 was the most consistently satisfying Justin album to date. Until… Grade: B+
The 20/20 Experience Part 2 (2013) Releasing two albums in a year’s time is an audacious but not unusual move. Releasing multiple albums in a year was a fairly common occurrence until it became fashionable to work an album 4 or 5 (or more) singles deep for 12-18 months in the mid Eighties. The worry (at least my worry) with the second volume of The 20/20 Experience was that it would be sort of a rock-bottom remainders companion to Vol. 1. Thankfully, Timberlake and Timbaland saved some of their best material for Vol. 2.
Although some of the material at the start of the album is a bit questionable (“TKO”‘s release prior to the album dropping had me really, really afraid) and the songs are once again too long, Justin is actually armed with better material on this second album than he was the first time around. The last half of the album, which focuses on more melodic offerings, is particularly memorable. “Take Back The Night” is killer faux-MJ, while “You Got It On” is top-notch bedroom soul. Jay Z and JT continue their mutually beneficial working relationship with “Murder,” while the shimmering “Not A Bad Thing” deserves to be #1 for eleventy billion weeks. That and the acoustic “Pair Of Wings” point towards a more organic, promising new direction for Justin on album #5.
Individually, the two 20/20 Experiences are pretty good. Combined (and with the song times at an acceptable length,) Justin might have made the best album of 2013. Alas, Justin will have to settle for two pretty good albums as opposed to one great one, which is probably fine by him and fine by me as a consumer. Hell, I’ve spent my money on much worse over the years. Here’s to hoping that the last few tracks point to the direction of Justin’s next album. Here’s also to hoping that he doesn’t take six and a half years to complete it. Grade: B+
Odds & Ends: In case you missed our post on it back in the day, JC Chasez made a mighty fine solo album as well. Actually, it can be argued that his Schizophrenic was a) ahead of its time and b) pointed very clearly to some of the work his former bandmate would attain success with a few years down the line. Justin’s made a couple of compilation/soundtrack appearances over the years, with the most essential being the head-bobbing “Love Don’t Love Me,” from the Bad Boys 2 Soundtrack. He also delivered a pretty rendition of Leonard Cohen’s oft-covered “Hallelujah” on the 2012 Hope For Haiti telethon (as out of place as the song was) accompanied by singer/songwriter Matt Morris and guitar virtuoso Charlie Sexton.
Justin has also been quite the sought-after producer/collaborator for hire over the past decade. He’s worked with ’80s icons Duran Duran & Madonna, R&B studs Jamie Foxx & Ciara, and a who’s who of emcees ranging from Talib Kweli to Snoop Dogg. He’s made a T-Pain song tolerable, for Chrissakes. The best of his collaborations include the dry-hump fest “Love Sex Magic” (with Ciara,) the conscious “The Nature” (with Kweli,) and the throwback dance-soul “Dance 2 Night” (the best thing on Madge’s Hard Candy album.) I can’t forget the bouncy “Floatin’,” (a collaboration with will.i.am from Gap Band singer Charlie Wilson’s 2005 comeback album) and “Loose End,” a sobering tune credited to Sergio Mendes that also features will.i.am and Pharoahe Monch. Below, you’ll find a playlist featuring some of JT’s best jams. It was harder to narrow this list down to 20 tunes (I added his Emmy-winning “Dick In A Box” skit from Saturday Night Live as a “bonus track,”) which should be evidence enough that this guy is the real deal.