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.
Timberlake, now 32, has no such worries. The thing is – Timberlake and Timbaland do work well together, producing gorgeous melodies and grooves impossible to get out of your head. They mine R&B while simultaneously upgrading it, something that new jacks like Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and others try to do but without producer Tim’s prodigious production skills. (Though it must be said that Bruno Mars and Miguel, both ethnically ambiguous-looking men, are doing well with their own mashup of R&B and pop.)
But Timberlake has whiteness on his side, which means he has a built-in audience base that black R&B artists just as talented don’t have. (Frank Ocean being the exception, though his Grammy performance suggests he has a way to go before being anointed “the next big thing”.) Timberlake lost ground in the black community after his very public disrobing of Janet Jackson at the 2004 Superbowl. The infamous incident, which happened during their halftime performance, left many feeling as though Timberlake (then dubbed Timberfake) deserted Jackson after the fact. Urged to do so by CBS, who threatened to pull him from the Grammys, he apologized publicly, while throwing Jackson under the proverbial bus by not defending her.
After nine years, we can figure that all parties are probably past it now. (Though we don’t know if Janet has ever said that she still talks to Timberlake.) Whether he is supported by the black community or not, Timberlake will get his sales. “The 20/20 Experience” is immensely listenable, has some great ballads, irresistibly funky uptempo grooves and is much more fun to listen to than much of the so called “new” R&B put out by many pretenders to the R&B throne.
Sadly, though many of us bemoan the lack of “real” music, when folks like Mint Condition, Eric Benet, Kelly Price or Ledisi release a CD, they don’t get the numbers they should. Is it because they lack Timberlake’s promo opportunities, music has moved past them or there’s a smaller audience for them regardless? We don’t know. But we’ll admit, we’ll likely be grooving along to Timberlake regardless. “The 20/20 Experience” is just that good.