Last week I was called a beer snob. Not because I have a distinguished palette that breaks down hops, barley, and malts, but because I only like cheap, light, American beers.[ref] Power Rankings: Natty, Budweiser, PBR[/ref] Sure sometimes I’ll drink Guinness when I want to remember my summer in London or a Sweetwater Blue if I’m enjoying an Atlanta spring on a patio somewhere, but that is as refined as my tastes get. I live in fear of bars[ref]I’m sorry: “pubs”[/ref] that only offer microbrews and imports because I don’t want my pretentious server to judge me for not picking up on the subtle acai berry hints of the IPA I just suffered through. My music tastes stem from the same theory and have been developed mostly by what the radio plays.
When asked who my favorites are I always respond with “Nirvana, Justin Timberlake, and Jay-Z” which normally elicits the same response as if I told somebody my favorite food is cheese pizza: “It’s good, but ya know there is a lot more stuff out there, right?”
There was a time when I was on the forefront of music during the post-grunge alternative rock era of the late ’90s and early ’00s, but once the punk scene took over I effectively gave up on finding new bands that I liked and resorted to keeping Trapt in my CD changer throughout the majority of college. The current movement in the music industry of bands that look like a family that lives in the Appalachian mountains has been totally lost on me.
During college, with rock music being only a nostalgic listen, my tastes turned more toward rap[ref]T.I., Jay, Kanye[/ref] and easily digested pop. Released at the beginning of my senior year of college, Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds was the defining album of my college career.
Yet my Timberlake fandom began when he was still in ‘N Sync as a closeted appreciation for their catchy songs and insane dance moves.[ref]For youngsters like Matt Lardner, in the era prior to YouTube people purchased “Darrin’s Dance Grooves” (yes, that is Erin Andrews) to learn the cool new dances when the routine was featured prominently enough in the music video aired on TRL[/ref] By the time “Bye, Bye, Bye” was released there was nothing shameful about having it on a mix CD. So when Timberlake dropped Justified my senior year in high school I unabashedly played the shit out of that CD to a point that every morning while driving to school I would make a point to listen to “Cry Me A River” and do the Timberlake head-shake when him and Timbaland exchange “OOHHHHs.”[ref]This story I am a little embarrassed by: During my freshman year of college I changed my voicemail to parody the end of “Señorita” and I sang this on it: “Guys, sing with me, ‘It feels like Moskal’s not picking up, can I leave a message for you,’ and ladies I want you to sing with me, ‘I don’t know why you’re not picking up, but I’m leaving a message for you.'”[/ref]
In preparation for this week’s release of 20/20 Experience,[ref]Editor’s note: Josh Klein just drove across the country listening to this record. Look for his proper review on Thursday.[/ref] I searched through the box of video games and CDs from college I keep at my parents’ house and found Justified (FutureSex/LoveSounds has stayed in my car since ’06) and put both Timberlake albums in my car so I could renew my appreciation. In doing this, the evolution of his new sound began to make total sense.[ref] I’m writing this based off only songs that I’ve heard on SNL and Jimmy Fallon, and from what I’ve read like this piece on Grantland[/ref]
The debut album, Justified, had the difficult task of separating his image from ‘N Sync and developing Timberlake as an independent pop star while simultaneously retaining the same fan base, and also inviting in new fans as he tried to become an R&B artist. To help with the transition, he teamed up with the era’s defining producers, The Neptunes, to achieve the sound he wanted. In their collaborations they used influences from Earth, Wind, and Fire as well as Michael Jackson, but more importantly ditched the polish of the Denniz Pop, Andreas Carlsson, and Max Martin–‘N Sync’s trusted trio of Swedish power pop producers. To begin the process of distancing himself from the hyper slick boy band scene, the first single released wasn’t the the ultra-pop dance classic “Rock Your Body,” but “Like I Love You.” This song put Timberlake in front of a band and allowed him to showcase his vocal rage.
“Cry Me A River” was the second single released by Timberlake and the stand out song from Justified. Written by Timberlake, the song showed a very real side of the singer by detailing the break-up with Britney Spears. His handlers touted him as a virtuous virgin, he finally went on the record. Since then, he’s been a believable force. Whereas the Neptune-produced tracks on the album played lavishly and loose like a Michael Bay movie, “Cry Me A River” was produced by Timbaland and had the large, but artful feel of a Martin Scorsese film. The song begins with Gregorian chants and continues to build up to Timbaland’s introduction when the level of emotion reaches its pinnacle and Timberlake’s heartache is felt in its fullest.
If “Cry Me A River” was the heart and soul of Justified then “Señorita” would be the smile and the eyes. Timberlake again leads a band and gets refreshingly novice with it: the first words on the song are him asking Pharrell, “come in right here?” He transported you to a rundown beach bar in the summer where people fall in love. The song employed multiple sounds that somehow managed to stay out the way of one another similar to a ’70s funk band. The defining part of the song is when Timberlake instructs his crowd to sing along, as it’s the first time he uses the gospel choir sound.
After a four-year hiatus, Timberlake and Timbaland teamed up again to direct the course of pop with FutureSex/LoveSounds. The debut single was “Sexy Back” and it went beyond its heavy beats and club boom with its forward lyrics. The bold statement that he was “bringing sexy back” to the pop game served as a defining declarative—I am a dude now. Timberlake said that he performed this song from the rock star perspective of a David Bowie as opposed to his R&B style. It had a Rolling Stones-like snarl, and even the synthesizers prowled like tomcats.
Timberlake went back to his hip-hop roots with rapper T.I. on “My Love,” a comparatively G-rated song about monogamy that pops because of Timbo’s manic production—the programmed beats shuffle like a tiger in a hotel suite. Thematically, this served as the follow up to “Cry Me A River’s” heartbreak. When T.I. comes into the song, his candle guy raps hit the “Future Sex” sound: grown, serious, funny.
For the third single, Timberlake went with “What Goes Around Comes Around,” which was essentially a “Cry Me A River” sequel in that it once again was about the betrayal of a lover.[ref]Besides the parallels in the meaning, this was also the best music video and he won the Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance . . . like he did for “Cry Me A River.”[/ref] This ballad showcased Timberlake’s vocal maturity with its stripped down feel compared to his earlier singles. The chorus of the song provides a personification-like feel to the lyrics “what goes around, goes around, goes around Comes all the way back around” as it feels like the music is circling a drain based on the echoing vocal effects.
The last JT single we’d get for seven years was the appropriately titled, “Until The End Of Time,” and along with my personal favorite track, “Losing My Way,” seemed to signal a change in Timberlake’s direction with their grandiose arrangements. Normally the flow of songs on an album is something that it is overlooked, but when they placed these songs back-to-back it made total sense. “Until the End of Time” was Timberlake releasing his true emotions all by himself, like he needed somebody there to hold him, but he was alone. It flows perfectly into “Losing My Way” which tells the story of a drug addict, but has the support of a choir. By the end of the thing, when the choir fully comes out, Timberlake (and the drug addict) finally have that companion there to feel whole.
And that brings us to polarizing 2013 single, “Suit and Tie.” Much like “Like I Love You” and “Sexy Back,” “Suit and Tie” is designed to inspire the listener to see Timberlake as a different performer. “Sexy Back” offered revolutionary ideas; “Suit and Tie” harkens back to The Copacabana and Frank Sintara, to a time when class and elegance defined a musician. Timberlake is backed by The Tennessee Kids, who give him that bigger-than-a-pop-star sound that closed out FutureSex/LoveSounds. He’s made. He’s a leader. He doesn’t need to ask Pharrell when to come in.
“Mirrors,” the second single released in anticipation of 20/20, manages to capture the same large sound of being backed by a rhythmically clapping choir, but this time it’s built upon multiple layers of his own vocals. The lyrics reflect his married life with Jessica Biel:
“It’s like you’re my mirror, my mirror staring back at me
I couldn’t get any bigger, With anyone else beside of me”
But they also reflect what he does here. He abandoned The Tennessee Kids and Jay-Z, and teamed up with himself to create his most extensive-sounding song to date. As a musician, he’s right: He couldn’t get any bigger with anybody else beside him. Not Jay-Z, not Timbaland, nobody. It’s a lonely mountain top.