Saturday, March 28, 2009
#29 Album of the Decade- Justified
#29- Justin Timberlake- Justified (2002)
I remember my first encounter with Justified well. After a long night out, my friend Griffin drove me home and, upon reaching my parents' house, he told me he had something for me (no homo) and called up a song I would later know as "Senorita." Breezy yet polished, the album opener presents the outlook that defines the whole record, a coy mixture of calculated professionalism and youthful exuberance. On one hand, Timberlake glides across the cowbell pattern and knows not to waste too much time on the verses. On the other, he adds a self-indulgent introduction from Pharrell and a sexual posturing that belies how young and green he was. During the call-and-response outro, I remember Griffin exclaiming, "Who does that anymore?" The answer is no one. Because of his history with *NSYNC, Timberlake was already an industry pro before his first solo album; but he retains the energy and focus of someone who knows this is probably his only shot, that he, for once, is the star.
Looking back on it, one of the more interesting parts of my exchange with Griffin was that, as I left the car, he passed me a CD-R labeled simply "JT." God forbid he fill out the full name of the artist or the title of the record. You have to remember, these were different times. Justin Timberlake was not on the Saturday Night Live host Mount Rushmore. He wasn't the impeccably dressed man all guys secretly want to hang out with or be or be with (kind of a little bit homo). He was the high-pitched kid from that boy band your sister liked, and he was anything but cool. Reflecting on the distance he's traveled from that point to his current status as a full-fledged adult hitmaker, it's even more astonishing how much ground is covered on Justified.
The mainstream media outlets resisted the charms I fell for, but they came around. You saw lots of begrudging three star reviews. NME famously granted him the number three album of the year...a year-and-a-half after the album was released. In 2003 Justin was nominated for one lousy grammy, the obscure Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. Once again, a year-and-a-half later, he took home two awards. Eventually, people realized that mainstream pop could also be unimpeachably, even historically, great. We now live in a more forgiving age, when Kelly Clarkson songs can show up on the most serious critics' year-end lists, but the reason for that is mostly Justin Timberlake.
Timbaland and the Neptunes co-produce the album, along with their fledgling associate Scott Storch, but the fact that Timberlake still emerges as the star, even in a song as gargantuan as "Cry Me a River," is a testament to his charisma. Cribbing from the structure and mood of Michael Jackson's Off the Wall, he manages to hit every audience he targets and cross over into all the ones who were haters before.
A few of the ballads are treacly ("You're out of this world but you're not green" is one of the more cringe-worthy lines), and the album cover screams "Hey girl, you did bring the oxygen, right?" But those are quibbles. This is pop at its absolute best by a guy who will be playing with the format for years to come.