Justin Timberlake vs. JC Chasez: Why *N SYNC Only Spawned One Superstar
Billboard.com's Pop Shop examines the solo career of *N SYNC's other vocal star.
In February 2004, the National Football League had a tough call to make. The cold reality of Super Bowl XXVIII's "Nipplegate" -- you know, when budding pop superstar Justin Timberlake sang that he'd have Janet Jackson naked by the end of his song, and the line actually worked -- was settling in, and the league couldn't afford another black eye so closely after its still-crazy-to-consider FCC catastrophe. And so, days before the Pro Bowl went down one week after the Super Bowl on Feb. 8, 2004, the NFL canceled the all-star competition's halftime show, calling the scheduled performer "over the top" and deeming the song to be performed too risque for national audiences.
The scheduled performer, of course, was JC Chasez.
Sure, Timberlake's former *N SYNC companion is not EXACTLY the Insane Clown Posse; Chasez's performance (probably) wouldn't have been as debased as the reactionary NFL would have liked anyone to believe. Looking back on the week between the 2004 Super Bowl and Pro Bowl, however, is a practice that only the most outrageous JC Chasez fans would undertake, but one that offers a tidy microcosm of the dynamic between the two former boy band members: plainly, everyone remembers what happens to Timberlake at the biggest sporting event of 2004, and no one remembers Chasez's shunning at a football game that means nothing and is often quickly dismissed. Nine years later, the script is very much the same. Timberlake, now an omnipresent superstar projected to sell 500,000 first-week copies of his third album, "The 20/20 Experience," upon its Mar. 19 release, while Chasez -- a charismatic songwriter, and by all accounts the best vocalist of *N SYNC -- is nearly a decade removed from his only solo LP, and very apparently, mouths are not watering for a full-fledged comeback. Did it always have to be this way? Could Chasez, with a couple of different choices and strokes of luck, be the one shimmying in front of a brass ensemble on "Saturday Night Live"?
With all apologies to Joey Fatone, Lance Bass and Chris Kirkpatrick, the un-ironic "Who's your favorite member of *N SYNC?" debate within the early-2000s confines of suburban middle school hallways typically boiled down to two dudes: JC and Justin. JC had the voice and the classic handsomeness, Justin had the moves and the blonde curls, and neither had dreadlocks (sorry, Chris). Former "Mickey Mouse Club" members who had known each other in their tween years, Chasez and Timberlake were the undisputed leaders of the biggest boy band in the world: listen to "Bye Bye Bye," for instance, and notice how the lead single of the group's most successful album was basically comprised of the same two members swapping verses and pre-chorus bridges before settling back into the ranks of their collective on the chorus.
*N SYNC songs were often constructed so that Timberlake could deliver the blue-eyed tenderness ("This I Promise You," "Tearin' Up My Heart") while Chasez could attack the higher notes and longer melismas ("It's Gonna Be Me," "I Drive Myself Crazy"). And when *N SYNC's 2001 album "Celebrity" and its subsequent tour effectively marked the end of the road for the quintet, Chasez and Timberlake were the alumni that hunkered down on solo projects first, to no one's surprise.
Part of the problem for Chasez was that his band mate beat him to the punch. Chasez's debut solo single, "Blowin' Me Up (With Her Love)," is a now-forgotten Top 40 treasure: Dallas Austin's production is rhythmic and inviting, Chasez's voice nimbly bounces between the track's many hooks, and the lyrical content is inessential and bubbly. In short, "Blowin' Me Up" was a slickly engineered start to Chasez's solo career, and released on the "Drumline" soundtrack in December 2002, the song became a modest hit, peaking at No. 35 on the Hot 100.
Meanwhile, Timberlake was conquering the world: his debut album, "Justified," was released one month earlier in November 2002 to generally positive reviews, and its No. 11-peaking lead single, "Like I Love You," was already being followed at radio by the staggeringly grown-up single "Cry Me a River" by the time the comparatively lightweight "Blowin' Me Up (With Her Love)" was blowing up on a smaller scale. The standalone success of Timberlake's "Justified" album did not necessarily dampen excitement for Chasez's ensuing debut, but by the time a February 2004 release date had been set for Chasez's first album, Timberlake already had three solo smashes (including "Rock Your Body") and an international headlining tour under his belt. It was inevitable that Chasez's first solo outing was ripe for comparison with Timberlake's growing pile of personal achievements.
True to its title and garish album artwork, "Schizophrenic" is a more offbeat project than "Justified," which took its cue from mainstream hip-hop and enlisted the Neptunes and Timbaland for the majority of its production work. Ostensibly, Chasez's "Schizophrenic" is more of a dance album, with Basement Jaxx providing the groaning beats and squiggly synths on "Shake It" and "Come To Me" basing its lock-step groove upon a sample of Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night." But a closer listen reveals that Chasez didn't know what he wanted his debut album to represent. There's breathy R&B on the blindingly sincere "Build My World," dumb-fun pop-rock on the sing-along "All Day Long I Dream About Sex," and, oh look, an Ol' Dirty Bastard verse (that's awesomely billed under the late rapper's Dirt McGirt alter ego)! Chasez sounds impressive yet vaguely uncomfortable on a lot of the album, as if he's confident of his technical capabilities yet grasping for a style to make his own; it's also telling that, unlike "Justified," "Schizophrenic" is crammed with production credits (Austin, BT, Rodney Jerkins and Robb Boldt were all involved), and Chasez, who co-wrote and co-produced the entire album, never finds a groove with any of his collaborators. The title "Schizophrenic" is supposed to convey diversity, but instead encapsulates the indecisiveness of Chasez's debut.
But the biggest problem is the song that the NFL originally nixed for their Pro Bowl halftime show -- "Schizophrenic's" lead single, "Some Girls (Dance With Women)." In the wake of Timberlake's metamorphosis from boy-band moppet to of-age crooner capable of delivering a "Cry Me a River," the release of "Some Girls (Dance With Women)" as a single was obviously aimed to provoke. Those yearning parentheses in the song title, the dimly lit yet flesh-heavy music video, the way that the words "Some girls dance with wommmennnn" slither out of Chasez's mouth on the chorus -- this was engineered to be Chasez's "Dirrty" moment, but, damn, the song sure could have used a Redman verse. Producer Alexander Greggs' drippy beats never congeal into anything worth remembering, and at four and a half minutes, the song drags underneath its salacious subject matter (which amounts to: Chasez sees some girls dancing together, and wants to join the party!). The stakes-free fun of "Blowin' Me Up (With Her Love)" was swapped out for an attempt to raise eyebrows, and the song failed to properly lead "Schizophrenic," peaking only at No. 88 on the Hot 100.
If Chasez had chosen a better lead single and a tighter arrangement of songs for his debut album, would "Schizophrenic" have equaled "Justified's" total of 4.4 million copies instead of topping out at 121,000 units sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan? It's hard to say. While Chasez was always a dominant singer within *N SYNC, he admittedly lacked the all-inclusive personality and jack-of-all-trades showmanship of Timberlake. It's not just about the songs that Timberlake came out with upon his *N SYNC departure -- you have to factor in the "Punk'd" appearances, the high-profile relationships, the acting aspirations and any other minor details that helped compose the infallible likability of our man Timberlake upon his solo launch. Chasez had the dance moves, high-profile producers and lofty mainstream goals too, along with a more consistent voice. Yet he lacked a certain panache necessary to appeal to all people at all times, and has helped sustain Timberlake's star power even as he made underwhelming films and played golf in between album releases. Chasez's voice would likely sound superb performing on "Saturday Night Live," but for Timberlake, starring in the "SNL" skits have always been more important to showcasing his swagger than the songs he performs. Timberlake, not Chasez, made "D--k in a Box," and that's why he's the much bigger star today, as odd as that concept may be.
Chasez's career post-"Schizoprehnic" became a too-familiar story of label departures, leaked singles and a follow-up record that could never get off the ground. But don't discount what Chasez has accomplished in the nine years since "Schizophrenic": his prolonged stint as a judge on MTV's "America's Best Dance Crew" was absolutely crucial to that show's longevity, as the former boy band member carefully analyzed the aspiring dance troupes' moves over the course of seven seasons. And his songwriting credits have been piling up, with McFly, Cady Groves and former *N SYNC rivals the Backstreet Boys all tapping Chasez for his veteran pop prowess. Currently, he's helping a new pop group, Girl Radical, get off the ground, and recently called the project "the most exciting thing I've worked on in 10 years." Maybe radio dominance was never in the cards for Chasez, but the disappointing results of his solo debut wasn't the beginning of a sob story -- as Timberlake prepares for "The 20/20 Experience" to impact the Billboard 200 chart, his former *N SYNC cohort has continued putting his pop instincts to good use.