If Justin Timberlake was synonymous with just one word (besides peroxide), it’d be “SexyBack” thanks to his career-defining single, which celebrates its 10th birthday this year. In an Entertainment Weekly oral history to mark the song’s milestone, Timberlake revealed that there’s a whole lot more to the track than the phrase that would secure the success of his solo career.
First of all, the brilliance of “SexyBack” for JT lies not in the lyrics of the song itself — “SexyBack” is only uttered three times, by the way — but the space in between them, and that’s why the single was and continues to be a game changer.
“To [paraphrase] Miles [Davis], jazz isn’t the notes, it’s the space between them,” he tells EW. One of the most important things about ‘SexyBack’ is the silence between [the notes]. I think really good dance music that I hear now captures that as well.”
Timberlake goes on to say that the track itself was a risky endeavor, in that he pushed for it to be the lead-off single for FutureSex/LoveSounds: His label, Jive Records, favored “My Love” as the album’s first impression, but Timberlake was determined for the grittier track to start the conversation about his latest work.
“I didn’t think about ‘SexyBack’ being a risk until [the label] wasn’t comfortable with it as the first single,” he shares. “They gave all these reasons: It’s too fast, you’re not singing, your voice is distorted, no one’s going to know it’s you. It’s funny, because seven years later they were saying [my 2013 single] ‘Suit & Tie’ was too slow. I’m a stubborn mule. I made a deal that we would shoot the video for ‘My Love’ very quickly after shooting [the video for] ‘SexyBack.’ So if, for some reason, we all looked at the ‘SexyBack’ video and didn’t feel comfortable with it, we would be able to go with ‘My Love,’ because that was one of the songs that they felt comfortable with. But when we started playing ‘SexyBack’ for the people around us — young people — it just felt different to me ... I didn’t feel like it was a risk when we were making it. We really did want to make a statement at that time and do something just a little more bold.”
Timbaland may be the one to sum up the track perfectly, though. “Excuse me when I say this, but it was like grabbing your balls and walking into the club, like everybody turns and looks at you,” he adds. “‘SexyBack’ had that type of statement.”