Actually, 'Justified' Is Justin Timberlake's Classic Album: Critic's Take

Christopher Polk/Getty Images for DirecTV
Justin Timberlake performs at DIRECTV Super Saturday Night Featuring Special Guest Justin Timberlake & Co-Hosted By Mark Cuban's AXS TV on Feb. 2, 2013 in New Orleans. 

In 2006, a solo-established Justin Timberlake released his second post-*NSYNC album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, to a chorus of plaudits he’d never experienced before in his young career as a multimillionaire teen idol. Pitchfork liked it; suddenly a man relatively unencumbered by expectations other than his own hungry ambitions found himself pleasing even the haters.

Chief co-conspirator Timbaland frequently brought up Thriller to posit himself as Timberlake’s Quincy Jones, and supposedly this was a career reinvention to compare with Michael Jackson’s. That’s not totally untrue, but it’s not completely accurate either. Critics in 2006 were new to what some still call “poptimism,” and many were so shocked that a former boy band leader made an enjoyable album that they called FutureSex a landmark record. Indeed, it was nominated for an album of the year Grammy and spun off four No. 1 hits and multi-Platinum sales during the prime of illegal downloading. But this was all part of the plan.

“The plan” has been a blessing and curse for Timberlake, who’s made a career of trying to do no wrong, poking fun at himself in classic SNL digital shorts (“Dick in a Box," perhaps his second-most-important song after “Cry Me a River”) and scoring major acting roles (including illegal-downloading pioneer Sean Parker himself in The Social Network). FutureSex/LoveSounds was titled as such because it set itself the high standard of bringing sexy back (to the future). And that’s been Timberlake’s modus operandi ever since, branding and rebranding in far more blatant ways than, say, Madonna. “Suit & Tie” was like if Madge named a song “Belly Shirt”; we already knew he likes to dress well. The fact Timberlake felt the need to spell it out has become worrisome for him, a trend continuing through the "Flannel"-dressed, Chris Stapleton-assisted build-up to this week's upcoming Man of the Woods album. 

JT's current self-consciousness has made this an excellent time to revisit his real landmark album, 2002’s Justified, which arrived bearing plenty of confidence but no assumption that it had its own album of the year Grammy nom in the bag. It’s not “innocent” in the slightest: In fact, it’s more outwardly thirsty and petty than the more controlled releases that came after. That’s part of why it’s his greatest record, because it’s a young man pushing for a destiny that he doesn’t entirely control yet. He did his audacious best, but he still had to leap from the boy band cliff over the chasm to Mt. Solo Career. JC Chasez’s screams could be heard below.

Sure, we can go with the Jackson thing. FutureSex is no Thriller, but a third of it is. “My Love,” “LoveStoned,” “SexyBack” and especially the astounding, stark Donny Hathaway-style closer “(Another Song) All Over Again” all live up to their rep as marvels of anti-gravity falsetto and Timbaland’s man-vs.-machine beats enhanced by tricky human beatboxing. The title track and “Sexy Ladies” are almost-great one-riff funk vamps that connect the bone and muscle tissue of the first half. But that’s the end of greatness. The vengeful “What Comes Around” pales in the face its leaner predecessor “Cry Me a River,” and “Summer Love” and “Until the End of Time” beat their respective one-riff melodies into the ground. “Losing My Way” was a noble but naïve stab at social consciousness. “Damn Girl” and “Chop Me Up” are fine.

Justified is every bit Off the Wall, though, a brazen delight that makes more room for groove than any specific image or persona. Sure, it was deliberately shaking off *NSYNC, but one reason it’s somewhat undervalued is because it’s so at ease with the transition. JT rides grooves in the second half that are less memorable than FutureSex’s padding but more pleasantly surprising to revisit. He doesn’t dominate these songs but rather plays hypeman for them, shading in the negative space of a mix that includes peak-powers Timbaland and Neptunes, but also Janet Jackson, on “(And She Said) Take Me Now" -- a title no one remembers -- for a tasty duet built on squishy, Stevie-style clavichord. The jazzy chords of “Let’s Take a Ride” today sound like Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange sped up. Astounding shifts from minor to major chords earmark the wonderful “Last Night” and the Brian McKnight-assisted closing ballad “Never Again,” which do clearly evoke Michael Jackson’s 1979 breakthrough.

It’s important to list those forgotten but concrete deep cuts, though Justified’s singles were obviously where JT meant business. The Tropicalia-Neptunes groove of "Senorita" is maybe the most relaxed, off-the-cuff teen-pop song ever. Justin sneaks his way into the song by mostly ignoring the fact it’s a song, perfectly nailing the sensation of mind-over-mattering his way into getting a girl’s number at the bar without it feeling weird. Unlike on "Suit & Tie," on “Señorita,” we have no idea what he’s wearing, we just know he’s a laugh-riot of a pickup artist doing an exaggerated lady’s-voice call-response himself on the breakdown and clinching the thing: “Gentlemen, good night. Ladies, good morning.” He pulls off a similar effortless brand of humor on the seamless funk of “Rock Your Body” when the chorus begins “So you grab your girls / And you grab a couple more.”

“Like I Love You” is heavier, with a live-sounding drum kit and a razor-sharp acoustic guitar strum for Timberlake to improvise an obsessive, “Billie Jean”-style melody over, and “Cry Me a River” s virtually an Eminem track in its hymnal four chords, dirge-like tempo and you-hurt-me-too viciousness. It’s also Timberlake’s crowning achievement in song, exploring a part of his psyche that the acting everything-to-everyman has declined to self-examine since. (“What Goes Around” doesn’t count.) It’s even more difficult these days to not side with poor Britney Spears -- and yet the unchecked catharsis of “Cry Me a River” is more twisted, more Prince- or Bowie-like, than anything Timberlake’s done since.

As his sonics have grown more complex and his song structures more lengthy and suite-like, Timberlake has opted to let his lyrical persona become somewhat secondary. On FutureSex/LoveSounds, he never put pen to paper when writing, lest words get in the way of the musical momentum. At his most experimental, on 2013’s sprawling, two-part 20/20 Experience, the fantastical imagery of drug-pusher metaphors and strawberry bubblegum didn’t stray much from his tried-and-true bedroom talk. But Justified showed us the beginnings of some paths he never quite went down afterward; it didn’t have a readymade persona that vetoed things that didn’t fit the theme or brand. It's his most exciting record because he rode its grooves and let individual ad-libs and ideas speak for themselves, rather than trying to retrofit them to a theme.

These days, it’s hard to imagine him making a record so loose, so unrefined in its aesthetic -- though Man of the Woods at least appears to be a return to normal track lengths. It’s no embarrassment to say that the powerful transition captured on Justified could never be duplicated by him again, or anyone else. He could sing a line like “I could think of a couple positions for you” (from “Right for Me”) again, but it’s harder to imagine Timberlake near cracking himself up with it, chuckling at his own newfound boldness. That’s the 21-year-old captured on his debut album: ready to take over the world, and not unaware of how ridiculous that is.


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