Justin Timberlake’s solo career has always struck me as a profound exercise in insincerity. And his arrogance has always been almost insultingly transparent, but no one seems to notice it – or care.
Take this nugget from his “beggin for a black pass” 2003 Vibe cover story where the woman who taught him how to “sing black” – herself a white woman (lawd!) – basically outs him as a poseur at the very same moment we were supposed to be believing we were getting the real Justin:
Although Timberlake loved R&B growing up, he didn’t perform it professionally until he became a regular on The Mickey Mouse Club. His vocal coach, Robin Wiley, who was a producer on the show, remembers how the then 12-year-old had to adjust. “He hadn’t sung a ton of R&B-ish stuff, mostly country, and the show covered whatever was on the radio,” Wiley says.
Or the fact that Justified was really just equal parts Timbaland’s unique brilliance and Pharrell’s “repurposing” of shit he’d written for Michael Jackson. Also from the Vibe article:
The Neptunes could easily have given Timberlake a “Girlfriend Part 2,”and no one would have been mad. “I wanted to break the rules in terms of what people thought we were going to do for Justin,” Williams says. So the producers decided to use Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall as inspiration. In fact, they dusted off five songs they submitted for Jackson’s HIStory Volume 1 and Invincible albums that were rejected. Williams rewrote parts of those songs with Timberlake and created new versions of “Senorita,” “Let’s Take a Ride,” “Last Night,” “Nothin’ Else,” and “Take It From Here.”
But I get it. People record other people’s leftovers all the time. Why does Justin doing this bother me so much?
Maybe because he had the gall to write in the liner notes to Justified that he had created some new sound. Maybe it’s because he ripped off Mike’s aesthetic while stealing entire sequences from Janet’s dance style:
…and then managed to emerge unscathed from the infamous Super Bowl 2004 incident with Janet.
Whiteness is quite powerful, that way.
Maybe it’s because only Justin Timberlake can get away with making fun of Prince’s height at a major awards show at the exact same time as he’s promoting an album that totally rips off everything Prince ever did (on the disgusting FutureSex/LoveSound album).
Whiteness is quite powerful, that way, right?
Or maybe it’s because at every turn, Justin Timberlake’s arrogance is the only thing that manages to distinguish him from other white folks who traffic in black music. “Dick in the Box” is only funny if you somehow think it’s hilarious for a white guy to make fun of black male R&B vocalists’ penchant for singing about sex (allegedly) too much as if this same penchant is somehow unique to black male vocalists.
Blackness is so funny, right? Even if you owe your entire professional existence to it?
And yet, the only thing that really stands out in Justin’s solo work is the brilliance of his collaborators – the black men who are doing the bulk of the work. So, of course, he’d call up Timbaland for The 20/20 Experience and put out yet another album where he’s basically a featured player on an album that is supposed to represent his own artistry. Justin so fades into the background on this album that its astonishing that no one will comment on it.
But whiteness is quite powerful, right?
His mere presence is overvalued even though I still couldn’t tell you what he brings to the table. “Pusher Lover Girl” and “That Girl” are so stolen from D’Angelo’s idiosyncratic phrasing that D should collect royalties. “Let The Love In” and “Suit & Tie” are pure Michael Jackson, even though the former’s cacophony only makes Mike’s greatness more amazing. “Mirrors”, a pop rock gem, is about the best thing on here, but when I call it a pop rock gem that should indicate why it manages to impress. You’d think he’d be smart enough to not include something as obviously left over from the Shock Value sessions like “Don’t Hold The Wall,” but he knows that whiteness is quite powerful.
And those are only on the songs that even bother to make an impression. The melodies to most of what’s here fade into the background, incapable of competing with the sheer brilliance of the production. He’s the most elusive superstar on the planet, but not in a way that is paradoxically revealing.
So I’m not entirely sure what The 20/20 Experience is supposed to tell me about Justin Timberlake other than the fact that one of the best black musicians of the last 20 years feels obligated, yet again, to give him his very best work (in a way he seems unwilling to do for anyone who has melanin). And I suppose I should be happy that he’s finally chosen a white aesthetic – the 50s Rat Pack showman – as incongruous as it is with what’s actually on the album. But I’m still waiting to hear a Justin Timberlake album that gives me something uniquely Justin.
I don’t think it’ll ever happen.