Justin Timberlake Reunites With Timbaland & Pharrell, But Is That Really What He Needs? (Critic's Take)
The reflexive reaction of most pop fans to the photo that Justin Timberlake posted to Instagram on Tuesday night (Mar. 28) -- featuring the pop star seated on a couch alongside superproducers Pharrell and Timbaland -- was one of pure joy. Aside from the three men having been individually responsible for a truly absurd percentage of the truly great pop music of the 21st century, when two of them have teamed up, they've had a Clayton Kershaw-like strike rate. "Girlfriend," "Like I Love You," "Cry Me a River," "Rock Your Body," "SexyBack," "My Love," "Mirrors" -- pretty much all of Justin Timberlake's greatest, most universally beloved moments of the last 15 years have come as a result of collaboration with one of the other two dudes in that photo.
So what's the problem with them all teaming up again? Well, it's not that there necessarily is one -- just that when we say the last 15 years, we're really saying 2002-2007. That's when Timberlake was inarguably at his peak, when The Neptunes were almost certainly at their peak, and pretty close to when Timbaland was at his peak, too. Getting that artist and those producers in the same room at their respective apexes produced the kind of generational magic that Dre and Snoop produced in the '90s, that Michael and Quincy produced in the '80s, that the other Justin is producing with Diplo and Skrillex right now. But of that above list of pop classics, only one of them comes from the last decade: "Mirrors," the peak of 2013's 20/20 Experience double-album project, and a great song, but not a perfect song, and one that inspires much more conflicted emotions than any of those other immaculate jams.
When you look back at 20/20 Experience, as excited as we all were at the time -- like, nearly a million copies first-week excited -- memories of those two albums just don't conjure up the same feelings that Timberlake's first two albums do. Part of that's on us, of course: For pop fans who grew up in the decade from Justin's TRL debut with *NSYNC to the apex of Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds taking over the known universe, it's just impossible to expect The 20/20 Experience, released seven years and a top 40 lifetime later, to carry the same emotional attachment as those formative pop releases.
But part of it's on them, too. There were transcendent moments to be had across the two 20/20 discs, but it could be close to impossible to locate them amidst all the endless jamming and distracting call-and-response vocal run-outs. Even the singles were stretched way too thin, and deep cuts like "Strawberry Bubblegum" and "True Blood" (combined run time: 17:31) just got way too goddamn deep, ultimately drowning in a sea of echoing choruses and broken-down grooves. Even at its best, 20/20 rarely reached the creative highs of FutureSex's bottled-lightning pop-funk (no shame in that) but Timberlake and Timbaland exacerbated their inspiration issues with copious amounts of more. It was the sound of two ingenious collaborators stuck in a compliment loop; too assured of each other's brilliance to consider how the music they (and collaborators J-Roc and James Fauntleroy) were making would sound to outside ears.
Now add another four years to that. Pharrell enjoyed an impressive second (third?) career renaissance a couple years ago, but his presence on both radio and Album-of-the-Year-contending LPs has tapered off considerably as he's gotten more involved in film projects and spent a couple TV seasons in an NBC swivel chair. Timbaland, meanwhile... well, he did get a production credit on Rihanan's chart-topping Anti in '16, and he produced one of the year's most underrated pop singles in Jane Zhang's near-hit "Dust My Shoulders Off." But suffice to say, it's been a while since any A-lister besides JT put nearly so much faith in Timbaland's guiding hand.
It's worth wondering if these are the collaborators Timberlake truly needs right now. He did add another Billboard Hot 100-topping hit to his tally last year in the indefatigable "Can't Stop the Feeling!" -- produced by Max Martin, one of the few men with on the planet with as large a fingerprint on pop's last 20 years as Skateboard P and Timbo -- but as popular as the song was, it was also a very safe-sounding soundtrack single. And maybe that's OK: After two decades at pop's center, amassing more money, fame and smash hits than even the most ambitious young musicians would dare dream about, no one could blame Justin for spending the next phase of his career leaning on his strengths, playing to his pre-existing fans and taking a backseat to the kids at the forefront of top 40.
But if Timberlake's not ready to cede the crown just yet -- or if he's willing to abdicate radio, but still hopes to enjoy a Beyonce-like second-life of blockbuster album sales and adult critical adulation -- he might do well to push further outside his comfort zone. What might a Justin Timberlake album sound like with Metro Boomin or Mike Will Made-It at the controls, blasting him into the 2020s? Could Nineteen85 and Noah "40" Shebib find a Drake-like chemistry with JT? Would Justin be willing to let a warped pop mastermind like Sophie or Grimes deconstruct his pop jams, and rebuild them in ways he never imagined? Or what about going in the complete other direction: Timberlake sounded pretty good unleashing his inner Memphis alongside Chris Stapleton at the 2015 CMA Awards; could the two have similar success with an entire back-to-basics album -- perhaps reduced by Rick Rubin as needed? There's a whole universe of pop possibility that could still await Timberlake if he chose to pursue them.
Going down memory lane with Pharrell and Timbaland? Well, it'd be foolish to totally write off the potential of such a power trio: All three artists have successfully reinvented themselves one or multiple times, and if they were able to inspire each other to do so once more, it'd undoubtedly end up one of 2017's greatest musical blessings. But based on recent evidence -- and the way of the musical world in general -- the odds would seem against them. More likely, another extended collaboration between those two producers would end up reliving (and maybe even expanding upon) old thrills, but creating few truly new ones. And for a dude like Timberlake who used to be all about the future, it'd be a shame to see him get stuck in the past.