Wipe Off The Dust: Still 'Justified' 10 Years Later

Friday, May 25, 2012

Justin Timberlake has pissed a lot of people off---including myself. I know, I know. Just saying "Justin Timberlake" or even just "Timber" now is like saying the name of Beelzebub to the point that if so breathed you'll be crawling backwards down a flight of stairs a la The Exorcist. Or so it is in the circles that I follow in....For a long time I had to keep mum about my like for Timberlake and his music, and well, now I'm grabbing the megaphone to shout it out on the blog-o-sphere.

A lot of the disdain for him has a lot to do with 'that-incident-at-that-annual-football-game-with-someone-named-Jackson-that-everyone-and-there-Mama-saw-something-pop-out', but in the years after that fact, Timberlake got quite cocky. He believed he was a re-incarnate of Michael Jackson, slandered his boy band roots, and decided that acting is his strong suit (it is definitely not)--basically he thought he shat diamonds, apple pie, and pearls, and well, all of that ego-tripping kind of tarnishes what Justin Timberlake used to mean to me.

In 2002, Timberlake was pretty much the love of my life then. The boys in high school were slugs compared to him (save for two unrequited loves, but note that I went to Munsters n' Idiots High). I was sweet sixteen at the time, so yes, I got swept up in the boy band craze that held the 90's and early 2000's in a firm choke-hold. As of now, it seems boy bands are getting a revival, and of course I feel quite old looking at the other twerpy pubescent boys with oh-so girlish locks, doing synchronized dance moves, and covering neon colored mag rags. So as a graduate of that age bracket, and after the teeny-bopper love has lost it's shine, the music is all that remains once that time is up. Sadly, 8 times out of 10, the music doesn't age well, and only a lucky few can be dubbed either "guilty pleasure" or simply "pop classic".

Oddly, Justified, Timberlake's debut solo outing from 2002, falls somewhere in-between. Pleasurable? Yes. Single baiting? Definitely. Yet, it's been ten years, and well, I'm still playing it, so I guess that means something right? So forgetting about Timberlake's current persona, the fact that he's the "old" Justin now (hello, Bieber), and his terrible movies (In Time had sooo much potential though...) for just a moment, taking a glance at Justified ten years later I have come to the conclusion that it has actually maintained a real sense of urgency.

So where to begin? Let's begin at what happened to provoked Justified to come into fruition. Timberlake seemed sort of destined to break away from *NSYNC right from jump, but it took three albums to do so. Listening to the group's final album, 2001's Celebrity, no one really knew who was going to take the solo route first, as second lead vocalist, JC Chasez  had a prominent role in the group as had a real knack for songwriting and producing as well. While I pretty much saw the group going in a different direction after Celebrity thanks to these two (just listen to "The Two Of Us" and "Do Your Thing" for evidence), it was no surprise when it was Timberlake coming out of the fold first, because everyone pegged it from the start. Timberlake's move is no doubt in a similar vein as Michael Jackson's break from his brothers, and probably more noticeable, George Michael from his Wham! days. He had the writing chops, the ear for the vintage sounds, appreciation for his soulful elders, and he was a looker, of course it was going to be easy to shop him around. Also he was a spurned lover at this time, thanks to the demise of his relationship with pop princess Britney Spears, and we all know how break-up/divorce/my-lover-done-me-wrong type of albums play out---they are usually full of fire, make tons o' bucks, and win awards. So this was a passion work for Timberlake---he had to get this out.

The Neptunes and Timbaland are at the production helm of this and they are what make Justified the aural joy it is. It's so pitch-perfectly produced that it's hard to not get into this. Timbaland's frantic percussive approach was new to the Pop market as he was mostly noted for works with Aaliyah and Missy Elliott, but A.J. (After Justified) he found himself being a go-to producer for the Pop set---and in some ways it killed his fire, but here he was fresh in the pocket. Listening to the clap-traps rhythms of rump shakers like "(Oh No) What You Got" and the smutty "And She Said Take Me Now" (featuring the sultry coos of Miss Janet Jackson) is pleasing. At Justified's core is "Cry Me A River" which is a spooky blend of accusatory R&B and Gospel. With it's ominous voyeuristic video, "Cry Me A River" took Timberlake out of the boy band trenches and made him well, a star.

For me, The Neptunes steal the production show here. When you hear dizzy dance fancies like the vintage funk spin of "Rock Your Body" or take in "Last Night" and it's Off The Wall appeal, it's evident of their sharpness. Even in syrupy ballad mode like the loverboy gush sound of "Take It From Here" and the very-Pharrell Williams "Let's Take A Ride", Timberlake exerts a real attention to vocal detail. Debut single, "Like I Love You" was a smart move, featuring urgent guitar strums and an appearance by the Clipse, as it's a quirky blend of rock n' funk that sounded unlike anything heard in '02. Also "Senorita" is a great first impression, as it gyrates it's way in, and with a sweet soulful middle eight to boot (though the call n' response part is cringe-worthy at best).

Timberlake probably didn't intend to blur the genre lines as his debut plays into the mainstream well, but also has him in test driving Hip-Hop into a blend of R&B and neo-Soul---and it all works for him. Even when he's at his most copy-catting, like the extreme Stevie Wonder bite-off, "Nothin' Else" he's right on the mark and you don't really wince too much. Not to be forgotten are Timberlake's moments with The Underdogs on the sweet n' soulful "Still On My Brain". And before Brian McKnight was singing odes about how he 'works' female genitalia, he was a safe choice for a decent R&B ballad, thus he gives Timberlake a hand-on-heart moment with "Never Again".

From Timberlake's end, his solo singing career is one that is currently in limbo as his last album, 2006's FutureSexLoveSounds, (aka The Timbaland Show) is now closing in at about seven years of age---and a lot of things have changed since then. Though he's popped up every now and again either being Timbaland's wingman or helping the likes of Madonna ("4 Minutes") and Ciara ("Love Sex and Magic"), Timberlake seems much more focused on his acting career, which is a shame, considering how he continued to get progressively better with each thing he did. Just listen to LoveSounds for affirmation to that.

It all began here though on Justified, and every time I give it a whirl, it's 2002 again, and in school girl crush mode I am. While it's not the most essential recording in music history, nor is it a massive game-changing effort on the Pop front, it's a mighty fine example of how you can take the boy out of the boy band and watch him grow.

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