Four years is a long time in pop music, but that's how long it's been since Justin Timberlake's "Like I Love You" heralded his launch as a solo singer and led the parade of singles from Justified. But it's summertime, time for hit singles, and this time JT's got "SexyBack".
It's not an instant classic; Neither was "Like I Love You". Part of the reason for this is that modern music marketing for massive artists holds that the best practice is the counterintuitive habit of not always leading with an album's strongest single. Instead, the label will put out a strong first single, especially one that plays to deeper demographics that form an artist's core. For many artists, this takes the form of a club-oriented track, a dance remix, a guest appearance on a mix tape, or in rare cases, promo-only singles that don't even end up on the album. (Beyonce's cover of 50 Cent's "In Da Club" was probably the best example of this, helping to set up "Crazy In Love".)
Of course, the jaw-dropper from Justified was "Cry Me a River", one of the great pop singles of all time. Hearing Nick Lachey's similarly-themed based-on-a-public-breakup "What's Left of Me" reminds us how truly abysmal such a song had every reason to be.
So, Justin's leading with a club-oriented track that features (the increasingly prominent) Timbaland and a female vocal buried in the mix that sure sounds a hell of a lot like Janet Jackson. Of course, given Justin's falsetto, this could just be a processed version of his own voice, but the nod to nipplegate would be a savvy way of giving the single a bounce when the "secret" leaked out. There's also rumors that Nelly Furtado, having been around the studio when the album was made, might be the voice in question.
And of course, these are the two factors that most influence the single: Justin effectively lost his black pass during halftime at the SuperBowl, and his vocals on this track are dramatically different from anything he's done before.
Timberlake, of course, lost his permission to appropriate for having distanced himself (or at least appearing to) from Janet in the wake of the nipplegate scandal. There was a halfhearted attempt by Gwen Stefani to get some credibility with black radio on her own solo album, but essentially there are almost no other white artists who get significant airplay on black radio. The argument's been made that this credibility made Justin Timberlake's most direct pop ancestor George Michael rather than the obvious Michael Jackson, but I think the parallels are thin. (I say that as someone intimately familiar with the entirety of all three of their solo catalogs.) It remains to be seen whether Timbaland, returning from their work on Justified, will lend him enough credit to overcome the resistance this time around.
Then there's the vocals. Timberlake's press tour (and the EPK for the new single) both have him touting people like David Bowie as influences on the heavily-distorted lower range vocals on SexyBack. And sure, if you try, you can squint your ears and hear the echoes of Faaaame in the track. But in the context of the song, Timberlake comes across sounding like nothing so much as J.C. Chasez, his former N*SYNC bandmate, whose own solo album closely followed Justified's release, if not its climb up the chart.
Not to question Timberlake's sincerity in listing his influences, but given how cannily he's managed both the production and promotion of his work, his nod to artists whose careers peaked commercially before he was born indicate that he might have a broader game in mind. In fact, now that even the stodgiest corners of the music business have acknowledged the influence of the online independent music media, it might be an attempt to push them even further out of their usual indie rock corner and into a fuller embrace of unabashed pop singles.
The song works, although the James Brown-style shoutouts to "take 'em to the chorus" and "take 'em to the bridge" seem forced. As interesting as the single, though, is the idea that Timberlake is shaping his messages around the record to appeal to the Pitchfork or ILX crowd, tipping his (now-retired?) fedora to their favorites in order to curry their favor.