Delusions of Blackness: Reviewing Justin Timberlake’s Justified

This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. This is a slight revision and does not take into account later information (e.g. that the Pharrell tracks were discarded Michael Jackson songs).

Justified album coverThere are 2 very distinct ways you can look at Justin Timberlake’s debut album, Justified. You can revel in the lean, slick sound and be carried away by it genuine listenability. Or you can listen closely and recognize that there is not an original note, chord progression, adlib, whatever, on the entire album.

Now I’m not the biggest fan of Justin, but Gone was the rarest of contemporary pop songs — one that managed to evoke its influences instead of just copying them. It was smooth, well-crafted soul-pop and is the one of only two songs of its kind to come out of the recent pop boom. (The other is Backstreet Boys’ If You Stay). That song alone made me think that perhaps a debut Justin album might be worthwhile.

Reviewers are eating this album up and they have chosen to look at the album in the first way. Star Tribune was so enamored of the album that they said, “This might be the first truly can’t-miss stepping-out-of-a-group debut since Lionel Richie left the Commodores.” USA Today, in a short paragraph, makes pains to tell readers he’s not really copying Michael Jackson, but then they back peddle a bit and say (what is probably the truest statement made in the media regarding the album), “at least he sings with more taste and restraint than most of his peers.”

Why then, am I saying Justified is so bad?

Justified is a confusing mess, lyrically and emotionally. On half the songs, Justin’s lame attempts at being down sound just like what you would expect. On the other half, he’s a typical NSYNCer trying to get the girl. The most glaring example of the former would be Right For Me where the affected slang and hip-hop lite braggadocio is hilarious. Senorita is a nice little ditty, but again he just sounds like a little boy who wants so bad to be cool and fails miserably. Take Me Now is corny and not remotely believable. Then of course you get the requisite mid-tempos which are only marginally better than the poseur-lite tripe I’ve just referenced. He seems more comfortable singing stuff like Still On My Brain, but that doesn’t necessarily make it better.

There is not an original note on this album. No original vocal production, phrasing, adlibbing. Nothing. Everything on this album is a blind copy. The only songs that manage to rise up and become truly derivative are Cry Me A River and Nothin’ Else. The former is about as sublime a song as Timbaland has ever created. Justin’s real talent may be in his ability to marry simple beatboxing to melodies. He did it to stunning effect on Gone and now on Cry Me A River. Justin’s heartfelt lyric “You were my sun/You were my earth isn’t the deepest, but by the time he gets to The bridges were burned/Now its your turn to cry” he truly grabs you. The song is stellar, but honestly I’ve heard songs very much like it on Ginuwine’s albums, some just as good, if not better. Nothin’ Else is so Stevie inspired that you half expect to hear his harmonica. But that said, the laid back groove and sparse percussive backing track is perfect for Justin’s lower register. The bridge, and the little preceding break, is so beautiful, it’s astonishing. Those are the only truly affecting moments on the album. Too bad the same honesty of spirit and emotion isn’t elsewhere.

And that, friends, is the real problem. Justin is so earnestly mimicking his influences, instead of allowing himself to be influenced, that he actually believes he has created his own sound…he even says it in the liner notes. It’s not hard to like this album, it is well-crafted for the most part. But for me, at times it’s like listening to the best Ginuwine tracks and at other times it’s like listening to Kelis’ Kaleidoscope. What makes it hard to like is the lack of fun that was evident in Justin’s contributions to NSYNC. It is more palatable to listen to lame white boys mimic if they seem to be aware that they are just playing dress up. From his MTV performance, to the Billboard performance, and his vacillation between loverboy and b-boy poseur, it is clear that Timberlake is confused. He is so earnest.

His MJ-lite opening single, Like I Love You would have angered even had he not ripped off entire choreographed segments and the MJ look on MTV. Take It From Here and Last Night are so innocuously catchy that you wanna drill a hole in your head and hope that the melodies fall out. The Brian McKnight contribution is further proof that he should have stopped after One Last Cry(Oh No) What You Got is probably the best of the rest, with Justin actually engaged with the Timbaland track instead of just coasting over it.

The production is not the problem. It’s good…that is if you haven’t heard Timbaland and the Neptunes other work. They aren’t doing anything new on this record. I don’t wanna say they gave him their scraps, because it is clear they didn’t. But it seems that they made an attempt to tailor their production to the thin melodies Justin wrote. I don’t think it really works. He sounds unconvincing and bored.

Many of the Neptune mid-tempos are reminiscent of the work they did for Kelis. But since no one bought that album, Justin is gonna get credit for what will seem like branching out on the Neptunes part. Same goes for Timbaland. Those who didn’t buy Missy albums or Timbs own albums will think this is new for him. Because yes, none of this sounds like Aaliyah, or Britney, or the other people they produced for.

Ultimately, the album is good enough that critics adore it. And that is what he wanted. But answer me this, how many of them do you think heard and reviewed Kaleidoscope? How many of them reviewed 100% Ginuwine? How many of them have heard Donny Hathaway who Justin unconvincingly apes on nearly every ballad? Not many.

But he’s achieved what he was groomed to achieve. To break away and be seen as a serious artist. Is he one? No. Is he capable of becoming one? Absolutely. But this is a fan’s album, a little kid’s work. He made music that he wanted to make and I applaud that, but it isn’t him. I’m just truly disturbed and disappointed that he really believes Justified is an original work. The hype machine is so great on this and around him that he can really do no wrong, and that is dangerous. What he doesn’t realize, I think, is that if he continues to do albums like this, the truth, that he is ripping off black folks, will become a liability. Mainstream media doesn’t really want to acknowledge that it’s all black at the core, so once they’ll let it slide. Shit, maybe twice…who knows? But at some point, someone will have to sound the alarm, right?

So yes, this is inventive. It sounds edgy. (Didn’t Daria show us that “edgy” has no meaning, I keep seen that word in conjuction with this record). Bottom-line. People are so easily bored with Timbaland and Neptunes when they were doing work for Aaliyah and Missy and Noriega. But now it’s all shiny and new.

Except it isn’t.

I guess its a smart move on their part, because they get to work more…but how many preteens are gonna remember Cry Me A River as the great production of Timbaland. Or Like I Love You as great production of the Neptunes.

And therein lies the danger…once again, for the people this will really influence, the next generation, the real musicians, the real artists, will fade to the background, when creatively, they are front and center.

2 stars..one each for the two good songs.

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