On Nov. 5, 2002, a former boy band member released his first solo album. As a 10-year-old with no real interest in music, much less pop music, the album came and went without interest from me until Christmas time. My cousin Joey had received the album from his mom, so naturally he brought it to our family gathering on Christmas morning. As the CD played on the system, I was totally confused throughout. It took a few years to come around, but when it finally clicked, I was smitten. “Justified” was an album for the ages.
Justin Timberlake in ‘N Sync was an entirely different beast than in “Justified,” to the point that it might as well have been a different person. Flanked by his equally clean compatriots, boy-band Justin was the guy whisper-singing “This I Promise You” into your ear as 10 shooting stars shot across a fall sky at the exact same time on the most perfect night of your life. The Justin of “Justified” was lecherous and knew exactly what he wanted. He felt for you, seniorita. He was going to have you naked by the end of that song, dammit. To paraphrase BigGhostFASE, that’s some grown man stuff. Other than the music itself, that’s the obvious draw of the album. Never before – or since – had a former boy band member really broken out in an entirely different direction, grown musically and been so successful doing it.
But who really cares about why it was important? It will always come back to the songs and how good they were and continue to be. The track listing alone is pretty audacious. The album starts with “Seniorita,” which completely confounded me as a 10-year-old. Why is the first voice we hear Pharrell’s? Why is he introducing Timberlake on his own album? It doesn’t matter. As soon as the shaker meets that keyboard line, it’s all over. Bodies are on the floor and smiles are on the faces. You can hear the confidence indirectly behind everything happening, and then at the end, JT lets you know exactly how the rest of the album is going to roll: “Gentleman, good night. Ladies, good morning.”
Herein lies exactly what made 10-year-old me, and probably males of other ages, so conflicted. This album is the audio equivalent of Timberlake lowering his sunglasses and coyly saying “…ladies?” Even today, it’s not uncommon to receive a few looks of “Oh really, you like this?” if something like “Rock Your Body” or “Right For You” comes up on a playlist – which happens just as often as you’d imagine. When it comes to pop music and boy band-centric music in particular, society tends to skew more toward a primarily female listenership. While this isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s also not wrong to think that there were probably thousands of other 10-year-old boys that weren’t even sure if they were allowed to like a Timberlake record. How would the 10-year-old explain that he enjoyed “Rock Your Body” because the beat and groove completely destroyed and reconfigured your brain simultaneously?
“Justified” appeals to me because of how forward-thinking it was at the time, blending sounds and melodies in ways that the radio really wasn’t playing in 2002. This was a 21-year-old guy blending Prince and Michael Jackson for younger listeners in a way that they hadn’t heard before. Also, the album may have one too many ballads near the end, but other than that, it is a perfectly paced hour-long party record that could still be played today like it hadn’t been released a decade ago. Of course, a large amount of credit for the record goes to the usually-unheralded Timbaland, who has co-songwriting credits on nearly every song. The guests are largely forgettable, though I’m sure Bubba Sparxxx probably enjoys those yearly checks for his work on “Right For Me.” Even Janet Jackson, “Ms. Jackson If You’re Nasty,” takes a backseat to Timberlake. Of course, both Timberlake and Janet Jackson would eventually share equal billing during that infamous time when a breast nearly tore our whole nation apart.
With “Justified” turning 10, it’s only natural that our increasingly nostalgic culture starts looking back on our very recent history. The reason that “Justified” actually deserves further investigation is that current radio conventions can be traced back to it. Timberlake would go on to arguably top himself with “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” but that column-sized love letter can wait for whoever The Temple News employs to write frivolously about pop music in 2016. “Justified” is a universal language at this point.
At one point in your young life, there is a chance that you have danced yourself into a complete stupor to “Like I Love You” or embarrassingly tried to recreate the beat boxing magic midway through “Rock Your Body.” To compare it to another album from a bygone era, to say it’s “Our Generation’s Blank” is stupid, so I won’t. But it is something special. And as soon as Chris Kirkpatrick releases his album, maybe we’ll be able to say that about more former members of ‘N Sync’s solo material.
Five other artists with notable solo projects:
Kevin Stairiker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.