When Justin Timberlake set out to craft “What Goes Around … Comes Around” — which is up for this year’s Record of the Year Grammy — he didn’t say he wanted a karmic tale of romance and revenge. He didn’t say he wanted to make a statement about a particular woman wronging a particular guy (despite rumors about everyone from Britney Spears to Elisha Cuthbert). He didn’t say he wanted Middle Eastern instruments and swirling loops that emphasized the song’s title. All Justin had to tell his producers Timbaland and Nate “Danjahandz” Hills was, “Let’s do another ‘Cry Me a River,’ ” and “What Goes Around” was born.
“We had no direction at all,” Danjahandz recently told MTV News, “other than ‘Cry Me a River,’ and not in the sense of mimicking the track, but in how big the song was. There was no direction for how he wanted the song to sound, because there was no direction for how he wanted [his album FutureSex/LoveSounds] to sound. This was the first one.”
Timberlake had gone to Timbaland’s studio in Virginia to begin sessions for the LP — but there was no game plan for the album, not even a title. “I think that was the beauty of the whole project,” Danjahandz said. “Nobody had a thought about anything. None of us was aiming for anything.” So while Timbaland kept them well supplied with “real good lasagnas and pastas” to eat and plenty of Prince music to listen to on the stereo, they were just “fooling around” and “freestyling” at first. Then Danja started playing a guitar riff that caught Justin’s attention.
“He started singing, ‘What goes around comes around’ — like, the melody first, no words, and then the words came,” Danjahandz recalled. “Tim was at his keyboard, we were side by side, and he started coming with the drums to the melody. Everything was coming together at the same time.”
As Timberlake listened to the music, he started pacing the room, humming. He never wrote anything down — “You will not see any paper trail from Justin,” Danjahandz said — but after an hour, he was ready to go into the vocal booth and record lyrics.
“He was writing in his head,” Danjahandz said. “I do that too, when it comes to melody and beats. I start it in my head, and I’ll have an idea of what will fit, and I’ll play with it until something sticks. I can hear every instrument before I put it down.” Same with Timbaland, who almost immediately knew he wanted to use the oud, a Middle Eastern instrument, to mellow out the guitar riff.
“He has so many sounds on his keyboard,” Danjahandz said, “and somehow he just knows. He can match it in the key as if it were meant to be there, and not just thrown in.”
So by the time Timberlake was in the booth, the basic track — with the melodic loop — was done. Actually, it was more than done, since Timbaland and Danja had a version with a bridge that never made the final cut once they heard Timberlake’s vocals. That version included the pre-verses, the verses and the choruses.
“There’s three choruses in that record, that’s just the way Justin writes,” Danjahandz said. “It escalated into something really big and came up to the point where it was overkill. So we decided to go with the simpler version without a bridge, because it just would have been too much to have the bridge and the break at the end of the song. Maybe one day we’ll re-release the bridge version, because it’s slightly different in the melody.”
Timberlake sang the song in a couple of takes and then went back to perfect each line piece by piece and fill in the gaps — the “little hooky things that make you remember the song,” Danjahandz said. “Everyone can sing something in the song, like, ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ or you can sing the ‘No.’ Me, I sing the whole thing.”
At that point in the recording session, Timbaland and Danja added everything else, like the basses and strings. “Justin’s telling a story, and where the story gets interesting, that’s where the music has to change and take you to the next scene,” Danjahandz said. “It just takes you to the end, dies out, breaks down, and then it gets even more dramatic with the interlude. The song is like you’re crying, and you’re feeling all the heartbreak. But the interlude, that’s anger, and it’s vengeful.”
Danja compared the process to scoring a movie, and in his mind, “What Goes Around … Comes Around” was a horror flick.
“There’s the footsteps down the hall, then the heartbeat — more strings come in,” Danjahandz explained. “You start walking down the hallway and peek your head around the corner — it gets more dramatic. And then everything’s blaring at you, but you might not see anything, and you think you’re OK. That’s how this record is happening. You don’t see, and so it dies out, and you turn around, and whatever you thought you heard is now right behind you. The interlude is what you missed and totally didn’t see.”
The interlude was “masterminded” by Timbaland after the basic track was done, and once that was added, they knew “What Goes Around … Comes Around” would be a hit. “We knew what we had,” Danjahandz said. “Justin’s words were, ‘This is a great start. We’re starting off pretty big.’ And we said, ‘We got to top this.’ ”
Still, Danjahandz — a self-proclaimed perfectionist — doesn’t know what could top it. “That’s about as close to perfect as I’ve gotten,” he said. “I always feel like I can do something better. But I didn’t know what to change on this song. I mean, I could have gotten more technical with the actual melody, real minor things that no one would ever see or know, but that could have made a world of difference. Or it could have made it go south. Who knows?”
And if it wins a Grammy for Record of the Year? “If I win, I want to buy a Ferrari and paint it the same color as a Grammy,” Danja laughed. “Nah.”
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