Review Summary: So you took a chance.
From (at least) a brutally-pragmatic, solely musical
perspective, we have to appreciate the Harry Styles and the Justin Timberlakes of pop music culture. One Direction's current "indefinite hiatus" led to each member of the boy band releasing their own solo record as a way of filling the 'void' left in their absence, and no one - save for Styles - has released anything of note. Niall Horan's Flicker
and Liam Payne's LP1
are forgettable and flat, featuring songs that hardly feel like 'their voice' and feel more like leftover One Direction B-sides. Harry Styles, however, tried something altogether different with Sign of the Times
, and wound up retroactively, utterly *smoking* every single one of his bandmates in the process with vastly superior and far more interesting songs. Clearly, history repeats itself, because this is exactly what Justin Timberlake did with Justified
back in 2002. NSYNC's "hiatus" led to JT's slick, (relatively) ambitious debut, and Justified
was so good that JT went on to become a pop culture mainstay whereas the rest of the NSYNC boys faded into obscurity, Chip Skylark, and garbage reality shows.
And it's honestly not hard to see why. The first song alone, "Señorita", is far stronger-sounding than anything NSYNC ever pumped out that it's almost criminal. Señorita's not just fun, it's downright strange territory for 2000's pop, featuring a loose, devil-may-care beat with jazzy synths and a steady, funky groove dominated by 9ths and 11ths. It's bluesy, draws from a crystal-clear well of Latin Jazz, and the Neptunes' distinctive, choppy percussion adds a lot of syncopated charm to this charming, playful Stevie Wonder pastiche. The standout songs on Justified
are 2000's pop mastercraft. "Like I Love You" is a minimalist Neptunes classic, with a crisp, snappy drum beat, a loose, Spanish-derived guitar strum, and JT's malleable vocal stylings intertwining with distant, spacey synths; "Still On My Brain" is a chill, warm, lo-fi RnB ballad, a crossroads between Prince's "Call My Name" and Jamiroquai, and it's easily one of the most enjoyable, atmospheric cuts on this record; and "Cry Me A River" is an ironclad masterpiece, easily Justified
's best song. Dark, booming synths, a stuttering beat that blends beatboxing and a drum machine together, gloomy strings, and gorgeous, textured harmonies from JT delivering one of his best performances on the record: it's five minutes of pop music jewelry, perfectly straddling the line between guilty pleasure and genuinely brilliant.
With all that mind, one has to wonder if Justin Timberlake himself is to thank for Justified
's strongest moments... or if thanks should go to Timbaland and the Neptunes, the highly-distinctive, uber-precise producers that sharpen this album's sound like a broadsword. Some of these songs are downright fascinating
, especially for pop music territory, and the most fascinating elements of each song seem to be more about the instrumentation and less about JT's warbling and stage presence. "Last Night" features a curious blend of glittery, twinkling synths, propulsive cellos, tinny guitars, and JT's rapid, funky, falsetto-heavy vocals. Rainy electric pianos, a downright Sega Genesis
-sounding synth bass, and dark, subtle strings give "Nothin' Else" a uniquely cosmic, futuristic atmosphere. And "Take It From Here" is an interesting, experimental blend of ballad-y, bossa-nova acoustics and a stick-heavy drumset with swelling, film-score strings that dip in and out of the soundscape. A lot of Justified
's intrigue has very little to do with Timberlake himself. Justified
is, secretly, the wonderful little lovechild of three very talented, very distinctive, and very
The only thing that Timberlake himself seems to provide are some clean, solid, somewhat thin vocal performances (with the occasional exception here and there, like the colorful "Señorita" and "Last Night"). Now, that's a very common occurrence in pop music - half of the tracks on both Off the Wall
weren't even penned by Michael Jackson, for example. But one of the biggest differences between someone like MJ and someone like JT is that Jackson always, without fail, made all of his songs *his own*, even if they weren't exactly his. By contrast, given how *hard* Justin Timberlake's squeaky-clean and frankly American
tone and delivery clashes with Timbaland's sick, snake-charmer, Arabic-meets-Dancehall beat on "[Oh No] What You Got", it's pretty evident that Timberlake was struggling to make these highly-distinctive, experimental sounds his own. It feels like Timberlake was rolling with the songs on Justified
's setlist more so because they sounded cool and not because they felt like an extension of himself.
This, regrettably, makes parts of Justified
sound hollow and somewhat transparent, like Timberlake's merely emulating styles instead of expressing them. "Rock Your Body" hasn't aged as well as Cry Me A River. It's a shameless Michael Jackson imitation, one that lacks the electric, inherently *danceable* energy of the King of Pop's immeasurably superior hits. "Never Again" is literally just a Brian McKnight song. He wrote it, and you can *feel it*, and the overwrought, saccharine, romantic piano-and-strings just doesn't fit JT's vibe or personality in the slightest. Brian McKnight should have kept this one for himself - "Never Again" is a closer that sticks out like a sore thumb to the otherwise funky, cocky tone present on Justified
. And "Right For Me" feels weirdly... incomplete. Random instruments jump in and out at sporadic, unpredictable moments, the only constant being an insistent Arabic percussion vamp and an (irritatingly repetitive) acapella rhythm. It also has a guest verse by Bubba F*cking Sparxxx, so this has aged about as well as milk and yogurt.
Still, even with Justified
's occasional failings and its somewhat transparent, tryhard attitude, Justified
is a bold, enjoyable debut whose first half contains some of the finest musical moments of 2000's pop. This was the right place for someone as young and promising as Timberlake to go - the increasingly shallow and lifeless "boy band / girl group" scene was slowly dying off, and Timberlake had to shoot his shot and bring something 'serious' to the table if he wanted to rise above the inherent mediocrity of bubblegum pop music. Justified
stumbles in places - its' worst songs merely imitate genres and styles instead of channeling and naturally integrating them, and, embarrassingly, Timberlake's not even the most interesting thing about his own album. But when Justified
's at its best, it's a thoroughly satisfying burst of ear candy, simple yet sinuous, spunky yet sentimental, and bustling with experimental energy and stylish glamour.
Like I Love You
Cry Me A River
Still On My Brain