Justin Timberlake is amused by the media’s insistence that he’s been blatantly copping Michael Jackson’s vocal licks on his first solo single, “Like I Love You.” Rather, when he began assembling the material for the full-length “Justified” — due Nov. 5 via Jive — he reached much farther back in time for inspiration.
“I was raised on Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, and Al Green; they’re the artists who have shaped the way I approach music,” he asserts. “When I sing, I don’t close my eyes and try to channel Michael Jackson, who has had an undeniable influence on me as a stage performer. I think about Donny Hathaway. I think about how 100% present he was in his songs. He seemed to be living each word, each syllable as he sang it. That’s the energy I’m reaching for when I sing.”
Regardless of his point of stylistic origin, Timberlake’s first musical effort without his ‘N Sync cohorts has struck a resoundingly positive chord. Since its release to radio Aug. 20, the hip-hop-hued pop track has built a solid audience, and has climbed to No. 14 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
“Justified” was written and recorded in a six-week creative spurt that Timberlake says was reminiscent of “that period of time back in the 1960s and ’70s when musicians got together and just jammed and worked out of inspiration. There was no heavy calculation or belaboring songs and mixes. Everything flowed pretty easily and naturally.”
The artist divided his time between collaborating with hip-hop luminaries Timbaland and the Neptunes. The latter team helmed the recent top-10 hit “Girlfriend” from ‘N Sync’s 2001 opus, “Celebrity.” The end result is a collection of well-drawn, R&B-leaning songs that are notable for their decidedly earthy, often retro tone — a sharp, mature shift from ‘N Sync’s more glossy teen-pop output.
“I wasn’t consciously trying to make a non-‘N Sync record,” he says. “I was trying to make a multi-dimensional record; a record that captured the vibe of my favorite time in music, the ’60s. For the six weeks that we worked on these songs, I got to live in my own musical dream world and play a little hip-hop, a little old-school R&B, a little classic rock. It was so much fun — and I learned a lot about making music in a totally different way than I was used to.”
“For me, one of the cooler parts of this project, since we finished recording, has been gauging the surprise of people after they hear it,” he continues. “Even after the single came out and people were drawing all kinds of conclusions and saying, ‘Check him, he’s doing the Michael Jackson thing,’ I thought, ‘Just wait until you hear the rest of what we’ve got going on.’ “
He points at the sultry, groove-laden ballad “Take It From Me” as proof of his versatility. “It’s an R&B song, but I sang it like a rock track,” he says. “I was thinking about Thom Yorke [of Radiohead] and Mazzy Star as I was singing that song. It’s totally fresh and different. It’s also completely me-and that’s what counts most of all. There’s a lot more to me than people have previously believed.”
As Timberlake builds momentum as a solo artist, the unavoidable question arises regarding his future with ‘N Sync. Can he happily return to the fold of five after enjoying time as a solo figure?
“Absolutely,” says Timberlake. “To me, we’re talking about two totally different things. I enjoy being with the guys. We’re not just a recording group. We’re friends. We just like to hang out and be together. That’s not going to change just because I’ve made a record on my own. If anything, I’m going to be more fresh when I go back to ‘N Sync after having done this project.”
But can ‘N Sync — or Timberlake as a solo act, for that matter — survive in a post-teen-pop world? He is optimistic that both can and will thrive.
“I get tired of people waiting for us to go away,” he says. “We’re not going away, man. We’re growing and changing and making music that is real and honest. We’re not a machine. We’re artists. As long as we continue to remain true to who we are, we have a fair shot at being heard. That’s all we’ve ever really wanted: to be heard.”
Excerpted from the Oct. 26, 2002, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com members section.
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