Photograph by: Peggy Sirota for GQ
In case you missed it, the ruler’s back.
Sure, the details are vague, but all the signs point to Justin Timberlake readying the release of his first album since 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds. It’s a pretty refreshing wait, if we’re honest, compared to an artist like Rihanna who’s released seven album in seven years, but that attitude (in Timberlake’s own words: “I’m the one who sits and is obsessive about it before you get to hear it. I don’t want to put anything out that I feel like is something I don’t love. You don’t just get that everyday. You have to wait for it”) is only one of the reasons why the music world found itself so excited about Timberlake’s return yesterday.
Justin Timberlake wasn’t the only pop star who went from bubblegum to credible in the early ’00s – Britney, Christina and Nelly Furtado all underwent similar makeovers – but he is, by some distance, the one that made the most lasting music, usually under the guidance of close collaborators Timbaland, Danja and The Neptunes. His story’s also a surprisingly linear one, from hints of what was to come on *NSync’s ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ and ‘Girlfriend’, through the game-changing ‘Like I Love You’ and Justified, to the still-influential FutureSex/LoveSounds. Here’s Timberlake’s story to date, as told by 10 of his singles.
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‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ (2000)
*NSync’s first (and only) number one hit was the first hint that Justin Timberlake might be something more than a blonde-tipped boy band frontman. With each sneering “It’s gonna be me,” JT was clearly the only bandmember we’d be talking about a decade later.
‘Girlfriend’ (from Celebrity, 2001)
2001 was a strange time for music. Britney had gone from bubblegum Lolita to credible pop star in the space of one single (‘Slave 4 U’), Mike Skinner had turned UK garage on its head with ‘Has It Come To This?’, and *NSync’s final album Celebrity featured a genuine classic. ‘Girlfriend’, written and produced by The Neptunes and then released as a single in 2002 with added Nelly verses, wasn’t quite the moment where Justin got cool – he was yet to have the Justified wardrobe makeover, after all – but it was the track that made open-minded music fans from all circles take notice, tinge of guilt or not.
‘Like I Love You’ (feat. Clipse, 2002)
The first single from Timberlake’s first solo album Justified, this was the game-changer for Justin, not to mention a real display of power from the Neptunes: as if changing Britney’s entire image with one song wasn’t impressive another, here they repeated the feat with Timberlake. The beat is Chad and Pharrell at their simple best – punchy, organic percussion, a killer guitar loop and a Clipse guest spot – while Timberlake really ups the filth factor, especially on that outro. “Drums!”
‘Cry Me A River’ (2002)
Timberlake’s Britney Spears kiss-off proved the singer could pull off heartbreak without descending into the juvenilia of ‘Bye Bye Bye’. Over a Timbaland and Scott Storch production that mixes Gregorian chanting, a string section, and — why not? — beatboxing, Timberlake explores the full range of his voice.
For all the current excitement about him renewing his vows with Timbaland, there’s an argument to be had that Timberlake’s very best singles came with The Neptunes at the helm, and the double salvo of ‘Rock Your Body’ and ‘Senorita’, both included on Justified and then released seperately in 2003, is pretty strong evidence in favour. ‘Rock Your Body’ might have made the bigger impact – it seems crazy in retrospect, but the “have you naked by the end of this song” line was a real talking point at the time – but ‘Senorita”s undoubtably the better song. Dancefloors that don’t sing along to the call-and-response close aren’t to be trusted.
The first single from FutureSex/LoveSounds is the proper inauguration of the Timberlake / Timbaland collaboration. A grimy club track with a rock inflection, ‘SexyBack’ also officially ends Timberlake’s non-threatening phase (did he just say “motherfucker”? Was that S&M imagery?). The EKG beat and earworming synth riffs are inescapable.
‘My Love’ (feat. T.I., 2006)
Timbaland and Danja’s staccato synths and syrupy groove still sound contemporary, especially considering the current crop of producers inspired by this period’s R&B and hip-hop style (Jacques Greene, Girl Unit stand up). With JT’s falsetto and counterpoint sharp as ever, we’ll forgive the cliched lyrics; a verse from T.I. during his prime gives the romance an edge.
‘What Goes Around… Comes Around’ (2006)
The stylistic sequel to ‘Cry Me A River’, the ambitious ‘What Goes Around…’ kicks off with a seductive Middle Eastern melody before revealing an orchestral composition heavy with Timbaland’s percussive trademarks. As the song progresses, JT is more self-assured, climaxing with the half-sung / half-rapped broken-beat interlude that turns the tears of ‘Cry Me A River’ into pure acid.
‘Until the End of Time’ (feat. Beyonce, 2007)
Timberlake’s transformation from boy band frontman to a smouldering pop star that didn’t look out of place on tracks with Clipse and Three 6 Mafia was, obviously, hugely aided by the way he combined classic pop vocals and standards with the very best production from the hip-hop world. On ‘Until the End of Time’, the fifth single from FutureSex/LoveSounds, the scales are perfectly balanced: the drums might bump, but there’s little “future” about it – it’s just a simple, gorgeous love song by two of the best.
‘Dick In A Box’ (2006) / ‘Motherlover’ (2009) / ‘3-Way’ (2011)
Seemingly done with music after FutureSex/LoveSounds, it seemed that these comedy skits with The Lonely Island’s Andy Samberg might be Timberlake’s final musical contributions of note (an equally silly, Young Money-aping cameo on Dirty Money’s ‘Shades’ aside). ‘Dick In A Box’ was a viral hit and spot-on Color Me Badd parody, while ‘Motherlover’ proved JT could poke fun at his ‘SexyBack’ period and ‘3-Way’ seemingly parodied an entire decade of R&B and rap crossovers.