The main impetus for the title of No Strings Attached was the group’s break with former manager Lou Pearlman, the controversial architect of the ‘90s boy band explosion who was eventually found guilty of money laundering in 2008, and died in prison in 2016. But the idea that *NSYNC wanted creative control, to choose their musical direction and not simply sing the songs a Svengali figure had assigned them, was the point. And it was the sound of No Strings Attached that set it apart. The album, released 3 months into the new millennium, was a turning point for turn-of-the-century pop.
Before No Strings Attached, none of the major teen pop albums of the era had featured guest rappers or name producers from the R&B world, and virtually every one that came after did. Within the next three years, the teen pop arms race for street cred would culminate in a Christina Aguilera lead single featuring Redman. But for the time being, *NSYNC was still working toward a funkier new direction with Rami Yacoub and Max Martin, the ascendant Swedish pop genius behind their self-titled debut, on “It’s Gonna Be Me,” the sophomore album’s biggest single. No Strings Attached also featured frequent nods to R&B’s past and present, including a revamped version of Johnny Kemp’s 1988 hit “Just Got Paid” that *NSYNC worked on with New Jack Swing trailblazers Teddy Riley and Aaron Hall.
TLC, the Atlanta girl group whose three hit ‘90s albums fused streetwise rapping with sugary melodies, became the unlikely nexus of teen pop’s turn towards R&B. Their decision to pass on “…Baby One More Time” indirectly led to the rise of Britney Spears. But the song they released instead, 1999’s “No Scrubs,” kept them right at the forefront of Total Request Live-era pop alongside Brit and the boy bands.
That trio’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, in the process of launching a solo career that was cut short by the 2002 car crash that took her life, rapped on the No Strings Attached track “Space Cowboy (Yippie-Yi-Yay).” And producer Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs and Xscape singer Kandi Burress, the songwriting team behind “No Scrubs” and other smashes like “Bills, Bills, Bills” by Destiny’s Child, were drafted to pen *NSYNC’s “It Makes Me Ill.” Neither song was released as a single, but the young fans who made teen pop into a cottage industry were more interested in deep cuts than older music listeners might have assumed at the time. After all, Ariana Grande, an attentive student of early 2000s pop/R&B crossover, quoted “It Makes Me Ill” at length on “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” which peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100 last year.
Another hit pop album released two weeks after No Strings Attached further blurred the lines between pop and R&B. Thanks in part once again to She’kspere and Burress, Pink launched her career with the double platinum debut Can’t Take Me Home. She’kspere wasn’t exactly a cutting edge R&B producer – he was widely credited with adopting the distinctive hi-hat triplet patterns popularized a couple years earlier by Tim “Timbaland” Mosley. She’kspere’s brighter, more Top 40-ready take on the Timbaland aesthetic was likely a better fit for *NSYNC in 2000 -- but Justin Timberlake would eventually begin a long and fruitful collaborative relationship with the original article on his 2002 solo debut Justified.
No Strings Attached was still just an incremental step away from teen pop’s softer side – ‘80s adult contemporary veterans Diane Warren and Richard Marx wrote ballads for the album, the latter’s “This I Promise You” peaking at No. 5 on the Hot 100. But even “Bye Bye Bye” and “It’s Gonna Be Me” were more lithe and syncopated than the four-on-the-floor Europop beats of *NSYNC’s earlier hits “I Want You Back” and “Tearin’ Up My Heart.” Tellingly, the No Strings Attached track that most closely resembled the band’s debut wasn’t even included on the American edition of the album: The Max Martin-produced “I’ll Never Stop” was released as the album’s second single in European territories, hitting No. 13 in the U.K.
But it wasn’t even available in the U.S. until it appeared on their Greatest Hits compilation, released in 2005, well after the group had begun its indefinite hiatus. Not all of the gestures towards a more ‘urban’ sound on No Strings Attached work. Justin Timberlake’s sassy “we done done it again!” ad libs at the end of “It Makes Me Ill” may make you cringe a little. “It’s Gonna Be Me” was immortalized in a million “it’s gonna be May” memes as a direct result of Timberlake delivering the title line like an aspiring funk singer. And “Digital Get Down” features JT doing an awkward imitation of Timbaland’s signature “fricky fricky” beatboxing that would eventually become a frequent presence on Timberlake/Timbaland collaborations. Still, this was a relatively fresh new direction for a group whose first album featured extremely square and Baby Boomer-friendly covers of Christopher Cross’s “Sailing” and Boston’s “More Than A Feeling.”
*NSYNC had one writing credit as a group on their first album, but No Strings Attached saw their two most prominent singers taking the lead creatively. JC Chasez co-wrote 4 songs and co-produced two of them, while Justin Timberlake co-wrote and co-produced “I’ll Be Good For You.” And the latter foreshadowed the more soulful direction Timberlake would take the group and his solo career, with a funky backing track that sampled a relatively obscure Teddy Pendergrass single, 1994’s “Believe In Love.”
By the time *NSYNC released their third and final album Celebrity in the summer of 2001, the group’s sound and leadership had shifted decisively: Timberlake writing credits outnumbered Chasez writing credits, and the JT-heavy singles “Gone” and “Girlfriend” crossed the group over to Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Celebrity was the last time Justin Timberlake would work with Max Martin for almost 15 years -- by the time they reunited for the Hot 100 chart-topper “Can’t Stop The Feeling!” in 2016, he’d released four blockbuster solo albums, all of them primarily produced by Timbaland -- sometimes along with another R&B hitmaker from Virginia, Pharrell Williams.
In 1994, New Kids on the Block’s string of Hot 100 hits ended with “Dirty Dawg,” an awkward attempt at hip-hop crossover with the Bronx duo Nice & Smooth. But over the next five years, hip-hop became such a massive commercial force that the next wave of young white pop singers couldn’t help but absorb its influence. And with a cannier, more musically credible approach than NKOTB had, *NSYNC shifted the paradigm for good, and climbed to the top of the boy band heap in the process.