They say a well-rounded education is the key to success, and if that truly is the case, the my schooling is woefully incomplete when it comes to the subject of pop. That’s why we bring you “Popology,” the guide to modern radio-friendly stars as seen through the eyes of a guy who grew up on punk and metal. In case you missed previous installments, catch up with Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Eminem and others here.
This week, Justin Timberlake breaks the glass ceiling.
As high as the heights were for boy bands at the turn of the millennium, the lows were just as profound. Success within the confines of a group didn’t necessarily translate to victory on the open range known as the solo world (if you even got the opportunity to make your own album). There are warehouses all over the country stacked high with albums by the also-rans of the boy band era (they are right next to seventh-place finishers from “American Idol”). But when Justin Timberlake released Justified in 2002 and scored a string of huge hits, it looked for a moment like the path from pop group ubiquity to spotlight stardom was going to be smooth and free of pot holes.
Of course, it didn’t shake out that way, and Timberlake has proven himself to be the exception to the rule. It didn’t hurt that Timberlake hooked up with some of the hottest producers in music to build his unique blend of pop, R&B, rock and dance music. The Neptunes, who were the most in-demand name in the hip-hop world circa 2002 (and fresh off the gigantic success of chart-busting hits like Nelly’s “Hot in Herre”) built the bulk of Justified, including the singles “Like I Love You” and “Senorita.” They lay the ground work for the rest of the album, which includes bits of spry funk and nods to just about every old school (except for Timberlake’s own — save for the Brian McKnight-produced “Never Again,” none of the songs on Justified sound like they would have made sense on No Strings Attached).
Unlike a lot of Neptunes productions from that era, the cuts on Justified hold up extremely well. “Rock Your Body” has a delightfully smooth disco groove that wouldn’t sound out of place with Ke$ha’s voice on top of it, while “Take It From Here” has an effervescent quality that is almost exhausting. Strangely, it’s the tracks built by Timbaland (who helmed four of the album’s 13 songs) that sound dated and sort of out of place today. “Cry Me a River” is a stone cold classic that still sounds as haunting and icy as it did eight years ago, but “(Oh No) What You Got” errs too much on the goofy side of Timbo’s personality (the sort that can’t stop mugging in videos) and “Right for Me” might as well have been produced on another planet (it even features a drop-in from Bubba Sparxxx, who is a quality rapper but also bears the mark of the beginning of the millennium). Even Timberlake’s Janet Jackson duet “(And She Said) Take Me Now” sounds strangely alien today.
Of course, some of the songs on Justified are hurt by the fact that Timberlake’s sophomore effort FutureSex/LoveSounds is one of the best albums of the decade and oozes an adventurousness and a maturity that Timberlake only hinted at on his first effort. But make no mistake: Justified is the finest album of the boy band era, simultaneously introducing the world to the best that pop music had to offer while also destroying the very universe those other artists once ruled. In order to be reborn, pop music had to be destroyed, and Timberlake was more than happy to oblige.