There’s a difference between being remembered and being revered.
Though it can be pretty hard to make out over the din of the ever-grinding nostalgia content mill that gives us 3,000-word slap bracelet memorials and “Only Early Spring 2015 Kids Will Remember This” timewasters, being memorable isn’t the same as being classic.
There are plenty of recent pop hits that made more of an impact on the charts than they’ll ever make on music history. These are the acts that are destined to pull people out onto the floor in countless decade-themed club nights, only to realize that this song’s a lot longer than they remember when it’s not just the chorus being played ad infinitum over VH1-style reminiscence programming. And what may be even harder than distinguishing between songs that stood the test of time and tracks that merely remained is remembering that Justin Timberlake‘s discography was on pace to slot in to the “‘memba him?” jukebox before he dropped FutureSex/LoveSounds.
Before the release, more than 10 years ago, of what is still Timberlake’s greatest work, Timberlake was successful (selling approximately 17 quintillion records will do that) but had nowhere near the cred and critical goodwill that he enjoys now. Justified — his first solo album — did little to distinguish him from late-stage NSYNC beyond leaving them off the cover. And two years later, he didn’t seem to have much in the way of a follow-up.
But then Justin Timberlake hooked up with Timbaland and challenged the producer to create four more songs like “Cry Me A River.” That Timbaland-produced standout from Justified, with it’s instantly recognizable Eastern riffs and Gregorian chanting, was one of the oddest things on pop radio in the first half of the decade. And since it’s release, Timberlake felt like pop had gone stale and lost its artistic verve. He told Rolling Stone that he and Timbo intentionally avoided anything that sounded like the musical mainstream at the time, shooting instead for his idols and rock bands like The Strokes and Arcade Fire that he was into at the time.
“I said to myself, ‘I don’t want anything I do to sound like that.’ I just didn’t think it was that good,” he said in a 2006 interview. “I said, ‘Let’s take a stab at Bowie or David Byrne and see what we come up with.’ ”
Much of the resulting album sounds a lot more like Timberlake’s take on Prince than either of those two legends. “Sexy Ladies” could be a direct rip from For You-era Purple One tracks and Timberlake’s flitting between deadpan delivery and falsetto is a familiar Prince move from any era.
Both Timberlake and Timbaland were too studied in pop music history to be humble about their new album. Timbaland’s oddball production had already helped elevate several discographies into venerated status (see: Missy Elliot and Aaliyah.)And Timberlake, as the former leader of the biggest boy band in history, knew a classic from a pop trifle. FutureSex wasn’t that. The duo referred to the album as “Thriller 2006″ and Timberlake jokingly said he landed on the album’s title “because Purple Rain was already taken.”
It’s not surprising that Timberlake set those goals for himself, gunning for two of the most critically-adored and commercially successful albums ever released. What is shocking is that the music he made very nearly reached those heights. FutureSex is a dizzying and danceable mix of slap bass, beatboxing and woozy guitars that can still convince a club to move.
“LoveStoned/I Think That She Knows” sounds like being way too high on the set of a PlayStation commercial, to the point that it even includes its own comedown via the Interpol-inspired back half.
“My Love” places the “ooh, girl” pop-song template over a beat that sounds like it was made from sampled sounds of 2050 New York City traffic. Timbaland’s production is all hovercars and halogens, but the theme of the track is timeless enough that you could expect to hear something similar coming out of a stereo in that same future year of 2050. Given that Timberlake improvised a fair chunk of the lyrics in the studio, living in the moment of Timbaland’s warped space-pop, it’s about as close as any boy band refugee will ever get to having a Voodoo moment.
Comparisons like that might take a bit of the sting out of the fact that Timberlake hasn’t released an album anywhere near as good since then. But the love for FutureSex lingers so strongly that we still get excited for the prospect of new JT. Even after both parts of The 20/20 Experience landed with a resounding thud, Timberlake hitting the studio is something to be excited about.
Hell, we live in a post-“Suit and Tie” world and we’re still geeked on the idea of a Timberlake country album. That’s entirely due to the fact that LoveSounds showed us what Timberlake can do when he’s trying to move in a new direction. Well, that and the fact that “Drink You Away” totally bangs.
Timberlake easily could have ended up in a different place, far from the adoration he receives now. We take his fame for granted, as if it’s always been there, but he could have fallen off as easily as his boy-band compatriots. Whither Nick Carter? Nobody cares unless a boy-band cruise is announced. And FutureSex is the album that single-handedly saved JT from that fate.
This is an updated version of an article that originally ran on September 12, 2016.