Justin Timberlake’s solo debut smoothed the way for one of the greatest reinventions in pop
Original release date: 5 November 2002
Label: Jive Records
Justin Timberlake’s early noughties metamorphosis from perma-smiling boy band leader to tabloid-baiting solo superstar was a test case in immaculate repositioning.
*NSYNC’s final album, 2001’s Celebrity, laid the foundations: Timberlake finally lost that tight noodle perm in favour of a much cooler buzzcut, while the band’s final single, laid-back R&B banger Girlfriend, airlifted in trailblazing production duo The Neptunes and rapper Nelly. Later that year, Timberlake appeared stripped to the waist and covered in blood on the cover of style bible Arena Homme Plus. The scene was finally set for a new icon to emerge.
Cut to the MTV Video Music Awards in August 2002. It’s Michael Jackson’s 44th birthday and he’s just accepted the non-existent Artist of the Millennium Award from a bemused Britney Spears. Later, 21-year-old Timberlake emerge from a giant stereo system for his first ever solo performance dressed in full Jackson cosplay – black fedora, billowing shirt over a plain tee, the gloves – to debut Justified’s lithe, falsetto-heavy Like I Love You. It wasn’t so much as a baton being passed as a wholesale theft.
But it worked because Like I Love You, all airy guitar riffs, spacious funk drums (plus: “…drums”) and gliding melodies, felt and still feels fresh as a daisy. In a world still emerging from the late 90s pure-pop bubble, it felt dangerous. Grown-up. Sexy. Also, in Timberlake, pop had someone who could pull off both the swagger and vulnerability of imperial phase Jackson without looking hopelessly out of their depth. Rather than deny any of the Jackson connections, Timberlake – a media savvy entertainment veteran following his early career as a 12-year-old Disney Mouseketeer – revelled in them. If you’re going to be compared to any male popstar it might as well be the self-titled King of Pop, right? Besides, Jackson was all over Justified. Six of the seven songs co-created by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, a.k.a. The Neptunes, were originally written for and rejected by Jackson (they were later tweaked alongside Timberlake). According to Hugo, hours were spent in the studio listening to Thriller and Off the Wall. They would later channel that pristine disco-pop sound into Justified’s third single Rock Your Body, a studied approximation of an alternate young, carefree Jackson. Sister Janet – who Timberlake would later throw under the bus following 2004’s Super Bowl’s Nipplegate scandal – even appears on the low-slung, Timbaland-produced (And She Said) Take Me Now.
It’s not the only song on Justified that carries extra weight 19 years later. The album’s biggest hit, Cry Me a River, a brilliantly bitter kiss-off augmented by Gregorian chants, Timbaland’s elasticated beatbox and dramatic strings, feels tarnished now. A detailed account of Timberlake’s breakup with Britney Spears following alleged infidelity, its accompanying video features Timberlake stalking a Spears lookalike, watching her shower and dryhumping another woman on her bed. In a 2017 interview, its director Francis Lawrence called it “good for him in that moment of transition… to do something like this shifted people’s perceptions of him a little bit.” In an October 2003 interview Spears was less charitable: “I think it looks like such a desperate attempt, personally”. The combinationof the song and video would quickly help demonise the virginal Spears as an adulterer, accelerating her downfall in the eyes of both the general public and the tabloids. Years later, in February 2020, Timberlake posted an apology to both Janet and Britney on his Instagram citing white male privilege.
Justified’s legacy, however, remains for the most part intact. It’s still the blueprint for any pop act member’s leap into the world of solo stardom. Edgy without being ostracising, it’s the perfect mix of Big Pop Moments and pockets of experimentation (see the undulating (Oh No) What You Got, and the prowling, sweat-soaked Right for Me). It also ticked the main box for any early 00s album: a cavalcade of top-notch singles. Justified’s fourth and final one, the laid-back Señorita, is perhaps the album’s high point. Less heavy-handed in its cribbing and far less obviously eager to please, it channels both Jackson and Stevie Wonder, The Neptunes cocooning Timberlake’s looser vocals in warm organ riffs and blaring horns. Its playfulness is anchored by Timberlake’s endearingly cheesy call-and-response ad-libs in the song’s final third. “Gentlemen, good night,” the man by now re-christened Justin Trousersnake, says as the song drifts away. “Ladies, good morning.” He just couldn’t have gotten away with that while sporting a perm.