In 2000, ’N Sync was at the top of the music world, riding the high of the boy-band era and shipping nearly 10 million copies of its sophomore album. At the same time, that world was collapsing, with Napster heralding a music piracy revolution that’s made it all but impossible for anyone else to reach such soaring sales.
Where were ’N Sync’s members a decade later? Save for a failed single from the Drumline movie soundtrack and a coming-out-of-the-closet story, four of them had settled into obscurity. Justin Timberlake, though, had turned fate on its head: Not only did he have six solo Grammy Awards under his belt, he was getting paid to play Napster’s chief mouthpiece Sean Parker in The Social Network film.
One of the sole survivors of the late-1990s pop boom, Timberlake has adapted and become ubiquitous. Rather than retiring into obscurity or rush-releasing music to cling to his fame, Timberlake has learned to let his creative juices simmer, extracting the most from his experience and putting out products that stand the test of time. His output is largely untainted by fame or formula, and it’s why teens, golfers, hype-riding tastemakers and finance guys all have equal reasons to gush over the man.
The 32-year-old American released his latest album, The 20/20 Experience, in March, more than six years after his second record, FutureSex/LoveSounds. Both the product and its timing show a calculated approach to his creative output that’s particularly refreshing when viewed through the kaleidoscope of pop music.
The album's release has also proven to be crafty: after wide success, including three weeks on top of the U.S. album charts, Timberlake has now announced a second instalment of The 20/20 Experience, out Sept. 30. That comes with a world tour next fall and winter, including stops in Montreal and Edmonton. (He's visiting Toronto with Jay-Z for their "Legends of the Summer" tour on July 17.)
The near-seven-year wait between albums is the most obvious indicator of Timberlake’s approach to perfecting his product. While he clearly cares about the result, the process of making music matters just as much. “I write music all the time, but until you really feel that desperate need to shout from the rooftops and express yourself in that way, I just kind of keep it to myself,” he told Rolling Stone magazine this year. “I enjoy making music so much that if it doesn’t come out, that’s okay.”
Patience, he said, helps him sift the good material away from the bad.
“I kind of like to take my time,” he told BET’s 106 and Park show. “I like to live life. I like to know what I’m talking about when I’m writing a song. I guess I don’t rush it. ... You second-guess it, you tinker with it, you try to refine it before it comes out.” That, he said, makes a song “more special.”
Timberlake expects he’ll always take his time: “I will not be the type of artist that puts out 10 to 15 albums,” he said to Rolling Stone. (He was unavailable for an interview for this piece.)
Luckily, his best output is timeless. There’s a strategic dichotomy to the songs Timberlake releases as singles: For every standard-fare song he puts out to promote an album, there’s another that showcases something closer to a music legacy.
The 2002 single Like I Love You showed hints of a hip-hop-influenced Michael Jackson protégé, but Cry Me a River from the same year could have been released today. SexyBack from FutureSex/LoveSounds sounds like a throwaway in 2013, but the record’s second single, My Love, predicted a synth-drenched pop future that isn’t yet pop past. And while Suit & Tie this year serves as an okay runup to to his Legends of the Summer stadium tour this year, Mirrors is a song that’s steeped in R&B without adhering to the parameters assigned to the genre by contemporary hitmakers such as Frank Ocean or Miguel. With each album cycle, Timberlake advances the narrative of popular music.
(His fear of succumbing to trends, it should be noted, has spanned his career. In the 2001 ’N Sync song, Pop, which he co-wrote, he lashed out at his critics for trying to predict his, and pop’s, downfall.)
While Timberlake’s songs do more than just act out the sounds of the day, his acting career has certainly helped his songwriting. By assuming a character in his songs – “I’m not always on my suit and tie,” he told Rolling Stone – he tries to make music “to create another world that you can live in.”
It would be brazen, though, to declare he created that world alone. Timberlake has always relied on collaborators – first The Neptunes, now Timbaland – to eke out the sound he wants to achieve. He and Timbaland are “like brothers” who quietly understand each other, entering the studio together and tinkering with layers of sound, he has said. “We just Ping Pong an idea back and forth.”
Fans can thank Timberlake’s patience for his wide, enduring appeal. If hindsight is 20/20 – a colloquialism Timberlake is certainly familiar with – we may soon look back and realize the pop star has begun to reflect Jackson, at least more successfully than his contemporaries have. While others channel Jackson, either through deliberate homage (Bruno Mars), early narrative arc (Justin Bieber), or sheer worship (Kanye West), Timberlake uses Jackson not as a template but as a jumping-off point from which he can exhibit universal appeal. It’s this ubiquity – not just the familiar falsetto – that may find us looking back and ordaining Timberlake as Michael II, the new King of Pop.