JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE FEAT. JAY-Z
Suit and Tie (5:27)
Writers: Justin Timberlake, Timbaland, Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter, Jerome "J-ROC" Harmon, James Flauntleroy
"It was probably the best time I've had in my career... Just creating with no rules and/or end goal in mind and really enjoying the process." - Justin Timberlake, January 13, 2013
The first time I heard "SexyBack" was through a clunky black boom box propped on a shelf in the back of a deserted Quiznos restaurant. My sweaty hands were gripping the handle of a mop that was glazing the corroded floor as another evening of my summer job of choice ticked to a close. As my stout, goateed coworker stacked chairs upon tables in the front of the store, I was treated to local Top 40 radio that we'd blast without abandon from the busted-up Sony unit when our manager was not around. I paused the mop-up for a minute to consider why the entire establishment reeked of mayonnaise, and my ears perked up when the on-air DJ dramatically dropped the phrase "brand new music." Seconds later, I was calling over my Quiznos co-captain over from the front of the store, with the promise of a new Justin Timberlake single. He sauntered over, lazily reminding me that he was running late for a poker game.
And then "SexyBack" started playing, and we didn't know what the hell to think. It didn't sound like Justin Timberlake, or pop music... it didn't even sound like the work of a human. It was weird. It was a hulking mass of steel synthesizers and robo-vocals that felt alien to our ears and shimmered dangerously, like the cracked disco ball that would eventually grace the "FutureSex/LoveSounds" cover. It slithered across those fuzzed-out speakers with f-words and S&M shout-outs and a monolithic pulse that wouldn't change even when Timbaland would command a new portion of the song to commence. "I'm bringing SexyBack" -- it was an instant (albeit poorly punctuated) catchphrase, from a brilliant pop cyborg previously masquerading as a boy-band survivor! Upon further listens, the song's sheen began to dull a bit, primarily due to its designed lack of warmth and mechanical vocals, but that first impact was spooky in its intensity. As my coworker returned to stacking chairs and I picked up my mop, I kept thinking about how different "SexyBack" sounded from the more traditional R&B tropes of Timberlake's 2003 debut, "Justified." Would his second album sound as maniacally rhythmic? God, I hoped so.
Fast-forward six and a half years, and I'm in my Brooklyn apartment, surrounded by friends and half-empty wine glasses. We had just finished flipping between the 2013 Golden Globes (great job, Ben Affleck!) and the season premiere of "Girls" (great job, Donald Glover!) when the countdown clock on Justin Timberlake's website reached zero and "Suit & Tie" was revealed to the world. I muted the NBC nightly news blaring behind me and pressed play, as my friends stopped chatting and prepared to soak in a new masterpiece.
Over the next five minutes and 27 seconds, one of my friends grabbed her coat and laced up her rain boots, and another one finished sending a text message. There was some half-hearted attempts at dancing (mostly by me, embarrassingly wiggling my shoulders), but everyone had started talking again by the time Jay dropped the "tuxedoes for some reason" line. "Oh well," someone said during Timberlake's last chorus, before heading for the exit, because it was getting late on a Sunday night. The song hadn't even ended, and people were out the door.
"Suit and Tie" is not a bad song. The long-awaited, Timbaland-produced return of the most dynamic male pop artist since The Gloved One is bursting with endearing qualities: the expansive sequence that begins at the 0:44 mark announces a luxurious arrangement that recalls Frank Ocean's "Good Life," with Timberlake's aching timbre tiptoeing over the thermal beats provided by his favorite producer. It's the sort of stylish summer song the Neptunes used to let loose so effortlessly (Jay-Z's "Change Clothes," Snoop Dogg's "Beautiful"), and it's almost startling to hear Timbaland craft a beat this punchy and anti-electronic. Meanwhile, Timberlake sounds superb -- the time off has not affected his vocal instincts, and he weaves in and out of his falsetto with the ease of a veteran. And "Suit and Tie" only sharpens upon repeated listens, since Jay-Z's guest spot quickly morphs from "dubious momentum-killer" to "necessary change-up" as the beat folds in on itself and synths swirl around Hov's combustible words. The song deepens once its structure is mentally mapped out, and its multiple segments congeal impressively.
And all of those qualities would add up to a winning single if this wasn't Justin Timberlake's Comeback Single. "Suit and Tie" is a good song, but it's not the artifact from another planet that we've been expecting, nor it is the ambitious experiment that Timberlake alludes to when he describes heading into the studio and "just creating with no rules." Comparing "SexyBack" with "Suit And Tie" makes the latter seem almost impossibly safe: it's a sumptuous, fairly straightforward love song with forgettable lyrics ("Love is swinging in the air tonight"?), a useless opening 40 seconds and a Jay-Z verse that dutifully penetrates the beat while offering nothing unexpected. Whereas the lead single from "FutureSex/LoveSounds" was transformative to Timberlake's sonic possibilities and overall persona, "Suit and Tie" reinforces the silky-smooth image of JT that's existed since the opening bars of "Senorita." The comparisons of the song to Robin Thicke's oeuvre that existed on Twitter following "Suit and Tie's" release were particularly telling, since Thicke creates richly textured R&B music that possesses an underlying slightness. Thicke is hardly a poor comparison to draw, but it's not one that Justin Timberlake should be drawing.
Are we asking for too much? Have we assigned Timberlake with impossibly high standards? I'd argue no, because he's proven to be capable of innovation, of bursting through doors that no one knew were in front of him. The news that "The 20/20 Experience," Timberlake's third full-length, is definitely coming out this year is incredibly promising -- less than a week ago, few people knew when Timberlake would fully return to his most successful artistic form, if at all. And for now, at least, his fans have a gorgeous new dance track that should rightfully stake claim to any prom playlist. But "Suit and Tie" cannot be confused with the tremor Timberlake unleashed with "SexyBack," even if it eventually leads to another transcendent album and new career peak for JT.
I'll probably never forget the moment I heard "SexyBack" in the back room of that dingy Quiznos in July 2006. In six and a half years, will you remember where you were the first time you heard "Suit and Tie"?