By Jeremiah Tucker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
If America has a sweetheart, it's Justin Timberlake.
He's like the blandly handsome lead in a romcom who, at first, appears to be an unsuitable match for us but eventually reveals himself to be an affable, at times even goofy, everyman.
Now a star of both the big and small screen, Timberlake is reminding everyone that he began his professional career in music. His new album, "The 20/20 Experience," debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, selling nearly a million copies its first week out. That makes "The 20/20 Experience" only the 19th album to sell more than 900,000 copies its first week since SoundScan began tracking album sales 22 years ago.
To get a sense of what a blockbuster that album is, especially given the moribund state of the music industry, consider that the second best-selling album was country singer Kacey Musgraves' "Same Trailer, Different Park," which moved only 46,000 units.
Considering the position of strength from which Timberlake released "The 20/20 Experience," it's difficult to imagine how precarious his solo career in music was in 2002 when he released his first album "Justified," putting ÔN Sync out to whatever the boy-band equivalent of a pasture is. (A mall gig?)
Think about the glut of boy bands at the turn of century: Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, LFO, Hanson, O-Town -- how many of those bands' members successfully transitioned into successful solo careers? Just Justin.
Timberlake managed this, partly, by sounding like the one pop star whose music enjoyed almost universal respect -- Michael Jackson. "Like I Love You" and "Rock Your Body," The Neptunes-produced singles off Timberlake's first album were written to explicitly evoke "Thriller"-era MJ.
The Neptunes had, in fact, written "Rock Your Body" for Jackson's 2001 album "Invincible" but sold it to Timberlake after the King of Pop passed on it. The hip-hop producers' minimalist take on the classic-MJ sound evoked a timeless cool that Timberlake ably abetted, displaying a nimble falsetto and gift for vocal arrangement.
Then, in a move no doubt studied closely by Taylor Swift, Timberlake coyly implied that the album's second single, the spacey-goth ballad "Cry Me a River," was about his ex-girlfriend, Britney Spears. He then released a creepy music video where he breaks into a Spears-lookalike's house and films himself revenge cavorting with another girl. It was official. The boy bander was now a man.
Timberlake is partially responsible for my coming around to modern pop music, not simply convincing me he was a worthwhile solo artist after nearly a decade in boy-band ignominy, but that the Billboard Hot 100 is as likely a source for good music as Sub Pop or Matador.
I remember playing "Like I Love You" often in college, and in a scene dominated by either indie rock or Dave Matthews Band, listening to Justin Timberlake felt almost punk--snobbery posing as anti-snobbery.
And I wasn't the only one. Between the release of "Justified" in 2002 and its follow-up "FutureSex/LoveSounds" in 2006, digital music exploded. Suddenly, with all music available either legally or sub-legally with a few clicks, the will of major-label hegemony began to appear simultaneously broken and more appealing, like a rascally dictator reined in by a populist mob.
It's telling that the music review website Pitchfork, the bastion of '00s indiedom, didn't even bother to review "Justified," but four years later gave "FutureSex/LoveSounds" a rave review, eventually naming it one of the best albums of the decade.
In 2006, Timberlake made his first appearance with Andy Samberg as sleazy, early-'90s R&B singers wrapping their genitalia as Christmas gifts in an SNL Digital Short so universally beloved that your mom probably sent you a link to it three years after it aired. As Timberlake spent the past seven years building a respectable movie career, he also became the go-to celebrity cameo and host on Saturday Night Live."
Shortly after announcing his return to music on Twitter earlier this year, Timberlake performed at the Grammys -- which, because of him being the face of two ad campaigns for Target and Bud Light that ran regular commercials during the broadcast, might as well have been brought to you by Justin Timberlake -- hosted "SNL" for the fifth time, and was a weeklong guest on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" -- a stint that resulted in a couple of viral videos, including the latest installment of the duo's popular "History of Rap" series.
Timerblake's release strategy was so masterful that it hardly mattered that most of the songs on "The 20/20 Experience" are sumptuous, 8-minute sonic jams that sound like a combination of throwback R&B and collaborator Timbaland's woozy mid-'00s period, deliberately out of step with what's on the charts today.
I, personally, don't enjoy any of it as much as Timberlake's earlier singles, but if a second volume of "The 20/20 Experience" drops later this year as rumored, I'll check it out, just as I would a release by any American institution.