When Justin Timberlake left *NSYNC in 2002, it was shockingly rare for any singer from the millennium-boy-band explosion to craft a successful solo career. His fellow bandmate JC Chavez, 98 Degrees' Nick Lachey, and The Backstreet Boys' Nick Carter all attempted to do so with short-lived success, but JT beat the odds. After making an impact with his solo debut, Justified, he surpassed expectations of his boy band fandom and stylized a signature style of pop music.
The world of pop music is dominated by love songs, but Timberlake delivers his verses in ways you wouldn't expect. His collaborations with Timbaland attempt to break the monotony of pop music and transform the typical song feel like an exciting journey. You may think you know everything about this pop star, but his greatest achievements set him apart as an innovator of his own craft.
Justin Timberlake's solo debut, Justified, feels like a partial continuation of where *NSYNC's Celebrity left off. There, the group sought to experiment with beats built with glitchy electronics and funkier production. Timberlake also took on songwriting credits for the first time on the album's best-performing singles, including "Pop", "Girlfriend", and "Gone".
When Michael Jackson heard "Gone" for the first time, he suggested it should be recorded as a duet between the two songwriters. Unfortunately, that version would never surface, since it was already recorded for Celebrity, but it sparked Timberlake to think about his career outside of *NSYNC. "I felt like I cared more about the music than some of the other people in the group," he said to the Hollywood Reporter last year. "And I felt like I had other music I wanted to make and that I needed to follow my heart."
Justified would be the artifact of that ambition, which is mostly produced by the Neptunes, composed of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, and Timbaland. The Neptunes' contributions were initially created for Michael Jackson but were rejected by his management. Luckily for JT, their collaboration resulted in three of the album's singles, including "Señorita", "Like I Love You", and "Rock Your Body". You can hear MJ's influence in Timberlake's sharp falsetto and dance-inspired lyrics, influencing many to compare Justified to Off the Wall. JT confirmed the singer's influence in an interview with Billboard, stating, "I was trying to make a multi-dimensional record; a record that captured the vibe of my favorite time in music, the '60s."
While those tracks align with JT's boy-band image, Timbaland injects some sophistication into his performance and allows him to cross-over into the R&B world. His dark synthesizer tones, beatboxing, and hip-hop influences produce a mysterious and refreshing energy behind the vocalist's smooth tenor. Their first collaboration ultimately became the album's biggest hit, "Cry Me a River", which illustrates Timberlake's remorse over his then-recent breakup with Britney Spears with no holds barred. They also struck success on "(Oh No) What You Got", "Right for Me", and "(And She Said) Take Me Now" featuring Janet Jackson, all of which have a sexier edge that what most expected from the singer's innocent past.
Setting the Mood Right
Justin Timberlake and Timbaland were eager to nurture their magical synthesis when production began on the singer’s sophomore album, FutureSex/LoveSounds. The result is a forward-thinking musical statement that permanently warped the state of pop music and the world's perception of Timberlake. As assumed by the album's title, he transforms himself into a confident bachelor who bounces between the worlds of love and lust. Its funkier tracks dream of sex and physical intimacy, are powered by dark electronics, and take inspiration from Michael Jackson and Prince. The other half is dressed with elegant instrumentation that flood his love stories with glowing emotion. There is little gimmick (unless you're Prince, who claimed "sexy never left") locked in the grooves of FutureSex/LoveSounds, and it invigorates listeners from all types of musical backgrounds to vibe with him.
Timbaland's brilliant production allows JT's transformation to come full-circle. The album's electronic edge is largely inspired by techno music, thanks to the producer's protégé Nate “Danja” Hill. Danja observed how the genre's driving synthetic tones riled up club-goers and knew it would have a similar effect over radio waves.
"SexyBack" would provide proof to those predictions and became Timberlake's first #1 single, where he fashions himself as a mysterious sex symbol who's not afraid to dare. His voice takes on a seductive character and new complexities, like the stacks of vocal harmonies found its in choruses. Nothing about "SexyBack" was predictable and propped JT as his own main attraction. He told Entertainment Weekly, “‘SexyBack’ was the point when people stopped asking me when *NSYNC was going to reunite and started asking what I was going to do next.”
What makes FutureSex/LoveSounds a stellar album is its cohesive flow and daring song structures. It's impossible not to feel a rush while listening to its first half, where each track bleeds into the next while keeping the momentum high. In places where that's not the case, Timberlake and Timbaland add inventive interludes, which reinterpret a song's melody in a completely new form. The interludes for "Sexy Ladies" and "What Goes Around..." push JT to rhyme like an MC, and NYC rock band Interpol supposedly inspired the ethereal segway to "I Think She Knows (Interlude)". These reveal the duo's desire to smash the predictability of the pop song and continuously reinvent themselves.
While many complain the album can feel long at times, they're missing out on the album's most groundbreaking qualities. The duo tests the ordinary listener's patience to take in their musical genius, and if you're willing to donate your full attention, you will only be rewarded.
The New Sinatra
Justin Timberlake returned to the music scene in dapper fashion with his epic double album, The 20/20 Experience, in 2013. After a seven-year gap in between albums, the singer's suit proved his songwriting was as slick and professional as ever. He struts like a modern day Frank Sinatra and sings in front of a large string orchestra and Timbaland’s bassy beats on most of its tracks. The other side of the record is inspired by neo-soul, a modern form of R&B that fuses jazz, hip-hop, and pop that breathes with effortless cool. This new vibe gives JT's love stories a soothing backdrop, especially on the beyond-gorgeous closer "Blue Ocean Floor".
The first volume of The 20/20 Experience is immense and the most innovative. The album isn't built as a single-pumping machine but a sonic expedition that fashions Timberlake and Timbaland's most cohesive collaborations. Almost every song is longer than six-minutes and recycles the interlude concept delivered on FutureSex/LoveSounds with more unpredictability. "Don't Hold the Wall" opens with smooth barbershop harmony before delving into a dark and percussive main melody, where JT attempts to influence a girl to get out of her skin on the dance floor. Then, it segues into a clubby instrumental that rattles with bass and percussion, providing a perfect scene for the couple to dance the night away. "Pusher Love Girl", "Strawberry Bubblegum", "Mirrors" effectively build multiple songs under the same umbrella, where the duo remix each other to give each track's main melody new life. The magic found in every song makes you wonder what might have been possible if these compositions were longer– this writer wishes that were a reality.
Timberlake explores the high of love in the album's lyrics, but unlike FutureSex/LoveSounds, his desires are mostly fulfilled. Now that he's a married man and father with wife Jessica Biel, he reminisces about falling in love and celebrating its positive presence in his life. In "Mirrors", he compares their connection to a mirror, where their transparency allows them to find the best in each other. In "Pusher Love Girl", their love is as strong as any drug, and he claims there's nothing he won't do to lose that in "Blue Ocean Floor". These words give a glimpse of how JT has matured since FutureSex/LoveSounds instead of trapping himself in the past and repeating success.
The second half of The 20/20 Experience is home to JT's poppier side and doesn't take as many daring leaps, but it still shows his interest in taking on new genres and styles. Timberlake experiments with country for the first time on "Drink You Away" and "Not a Bad Thing", which are the founding inspirations behind his upcoming album, Man of the Woods. Now that the album has dropped, we're eager to learn about another sophisticated side of the Prince of Pop.
There are a handful of JT tracks that weren’t included in the official release of his studio albums, but if you look hard enough, you can uncover some hidden gems. A good handful of these tracks were included as bonus tracks on special releases, while others take some extra investigative work. Luckily, we took care of most of that work for you. Click on the links below to check them out-
- “Why, When, How” (featured on Justin & Christina)
- “Dress On” (bonus track from The 20/20 Experience Pt. 1)
- “Love Don’t Love Me” (featured on the Bad Boys II movie soundtrack)
- “Blindness” (bonus track from The 20/20 Experience Pt. 2)
- “Worthy Of” (bonus track from Justified)
- “Body Count” (bonus track from The 20/20 Experience Pt. 1)