Justin Timberlake’s new CD “The 20/20 Experience” is heading to stores and download sites Tuesday and well, the truth is, it’s probably the best R&B album of the year thus far. Timberlake has done his share of promotion for it – hosting “Saturday Night Live” for the fifth time, an honor he shares with actors decades older – and spending the week on “The Jimmy Fallon Show,” among other high-profile appearances.
This begs the question – should black people support this guy? Timberlake draws comparisons to another famous son of Memphis, one Elvis Aaron Presley, whose appropriation of black music made him an American icon and a film and music superstar. Timberlake has clearly taken some cues from the Presley handbook – he’s used his whiteness to present a version of black music more palatable to the masses. (For other current examples see: Adele.) That is no knock on either Presley or Timberlake. They are both charismatic vocalists and performers who simply took advantage of the talent they were given and the avenue open for them.
Starting out in the pop mode with his platinum group N’Sync, Justin’s own music has always included shades of R&B from his 2002 debut solo CD “Justified” to his 2006 collabo with Timbaland, “FutureSex/Lovesounds.” On his second CD, he and Timbaland use Tim’s hip-hop/techno, electronic mishmash of sounds to craft a set that borrows freely from several musical genres. Timbaland has long experimented with varying sound scapes, using technology to take the work of people like Prince and Stevie Wonder, who more than did what they could with the technology available to them in the 70’s and 80’s, even further.
All that being said, though, let’s look at Timberlake in conjunction with one of his R&B peers – Usher. Usher, though he hasn’t enjoyed the movie career that Timberlake has, has been more prolific in the same period and the two are the same age. Usher has sold millions of CDs but his best R&B CD, “Here I Stand,” was lost in the turmoil of his marriage to a woman unpopular with his fans as well as suffering from its unmistakable traditional R&B overtones.
When Usher comes out some years later with a more techno album “Looking For Myself,” a waste of his vocal skills in many respects, it’s applauded as the singer is now considered to have gotten back his younger audience, given that traditional R&B is now considered “old.” And as successful as Usher has been, the kind of promotion Timberlake is afforded – given his success as a mainstream pop artist and movie star – Usher will never get. Nor can he afford to stray too far from the techno/pop box that has constrained his career for fear that he’s aging out of his audience.