Solo CD by Timberlake says bye-bye to teen pop
By Elysa Gardner
|'N Sync's Justin Timberlake is the first member of the teen-pop group to release a solo album.
Advertiser library photo Aug. 4, 2002
The American idol from 'N Sync met the "American Idol" winner recently while doing a photo shoot in Los Angeles. "All of a sudden, this feeling came over me, and I started spitting all this stuff out," Timberlake recalls. "I asked her, 'Are you OK? Are they working you too hard?' "
Timberlake shakes his head. "I'm probably saying too much, but it might have had something to do with Lou Pearlman," he says, referring to the boy-band guru who managed 'N Sync during its rise to fame, then fell out with the group. "I remembered what it was like for us in the beginning, and I would hate to see bad things happen to her. I'm sure she'll be fine, but when I saw her, I suddenly became this weird caretaker or something. I felt like her big brother, you know?"
In fact, at 21, Timberlake is only one year older than Clarkson. But in terms of show-biz experience, the former Mouseketeer points out, he's an old pro.
"I've been doing this since I was 12, and 'N Sync has been together for seven years," Timberlake says, his lanky frame hunched over a huge bowl of room-service pasta. "I honestly never expected things to get as big as they did. At the end of our last tour, we were booking stadiums with no new album out. It just got crazy, and I think we all knew we had to take a break, to figure things out."
For Timberlake, that period of reflection bore fruit in a solo album, "Justified," that is bound to be one of the most closely watched CDs in recent memory. Out Tuesday, "Justified" has been a source of intense speculation among industry insiders, many looking to Timberlake to prove that a fading bubble-gum-pop movement can spawn an artist with more staying power.
"This is a make-or-break record not just for Justin, but for the whole teen-pop scene," says "Rolling Stone" contributor Rob Sheffield. "The problem these kids are having is that, at this point, most of their fans are about 10 years younger than they are. This is Justin's attempt to find an audience closer to his own age. And there's a feeling that if anyone can do it, he can."
Certainly, it should be no surprise that Timberlake is the first member of the world's foremost teen-pop group to release his own CD. Since the band's meteoric ascent in the late '90s, Timberlake has emerged as the act's most prominent voice, literally and creatively.
Timberlake's input as a songwriter and producer was especially evident on 'N Sync's most recent album, 2001's "Celebrity," which found the band incorporating more hip-hop and contemporary R&B textures.
With "Justified," Timberlake moves farther in that direction. He co-wrote all 13 songs, teaming up with some of the most popular and respected writer/producers in urban music, among them Timbaland, Bryan McKnight and The Neptunes, who also worked with Timberlake on "Celebrity."
The results sound at once rawer and more purposefully sophisticated than 'N Sync's material. The first single and current Top 10 hit "Like I Love You" features a crackling acoustic arrangement and vaguely dissonant chords. Other tunes are similarly lean and sharp, with syncopated rhythms and soul-based flourishes.
Though some may view this approach as a bid for more street credibility or critical acclaim, Timberlake says opportunism played no role in his choices.
"I grew up listening to Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Al Green, Michael Jackson, Prince," Timberlake says. "If you know that, this album makes perfect sense. It's not a departure from anything I've done, because I haven't done anything on my own. 'N Sync is great, but this is different not only from 'N Sync, but from anything out there."
Barry Weiss, president of Timberlake/'N Sync label Jive Records, dismisses the notion that Timberlake's boy-band baggage will be a liability. "People have to understand that real artists can come out of this genre. Look, Michael Jackson came out of the Jackson 5, and George Michael came out of Wham!"
Others have noted Jacko's influence in the sinuous, falsetto-laced vocals on "Justified." But the blue-eyed-soul crooner from Wham! may invite more obvious comparisons to Timberlake and a few telling contrasts.
"When George Michael made (1987's) 'Faith,' he didn't hire the top R&B producers of the day to help him," Sheffield says. "He went out on the limb himself. On the other hand, there was a lot less pressure on him than there is on Justin. I mean, no one expected George Michael to rescue the music industry."
If the pressure is getting to Timberlake, he's showing no signs of it this afternoon. Grabbing lunch in his hotel suite, the Tennessee-bred singer is a model of laid-back Southern decorum. He politely asks for a moment of silence so that he can pray before digging into his penne with cheese, explaining, "I wouldn't say I'm a religious person, but I'm a spiritual person."
"Justified" is being lavished with affection by the head of Timberlake's label, who relays his marketing strategy with the zeal of a military dictator plotting world domination. "Like I Love You" was shipped to Top 40 and rhythm crossover radio, where Jive promotions executive Joe Riccitelli says it's been among the top five most requested songs since Labor Day. The follow-up single, "Cry Me a River," due Monday, also will go out to mainstream urban stations.
On Saturday, "Justified" will be the focus of the premiere of "albumLAUNCH," a new MTV series offering a behind-the-scenes look as stars make and promote CDs.
"The industry needs this right now," Weiss says. "They need more artists that can hit many different sectors. Eminem hits five different demographics, and I think Justin will, too. The goal is for Justin to have a huge solo record, and then for 'N Sync to follow that with the biggest record they've ever had."