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The Maddening Arrogance and Elusiveness of Justin Timberlake

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.


Posted by tlewisisdope on March 16th, 2013 :: Filed under Music
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6 Responses to “The Maddening Arrogance and Elusiveness of Justin Timberlake”

  1. anon
    April 8th, 2013

    i was a fan of timberlake when he was in NSYNC. the thing that pisses me off and annoys me is his outright attempts to dismiss his success when he was in NSYNC. he chooses not to have anything to do with it; heck he even turned down the opportunity to do a reunion with the other band members. if it wasn’t for NSYNC’s success and million selling albums in no strings attached and celebrity, would JT be known as popstar as he is today? no. he wouldn’t be the success that he is right now. he owes part of his success to NSYNC fans who bought the group’s albums and singles.

    but he is too arrogant and stubborn to acknowledge that. the fact that other white performers like robin thicke and jon B have more talent than JT, yet of whom don’t have as big a career as him, is criminal.
    because they deserve to be a commercial success.

  2. jen
    April 14th, 2013

    This article is spot on and exactly how I’ve felt about him all the way back to his first solo performance at the VMAs. Perhaps if JT brought something new to the table at that time, it wouldn’t be a forgotten performance (which it is, who actually remembers it?) but why keep that in memory when you have legitimate pop kings and queens that have done it, and better?

    Additionally, his utter lack of willingness to acknowledge his involvement with NSYNC is one of the many examples of his insecurity. He could barely acknowledge the name of “the group he was in” in interviews. I’ve lost a lot of respect for him when I read these interviews.

    And now with this new album, which is terribly mediocre, he re-hashes music previously done by artists who have done it much better. While it’s nice to see this type of music floating around in the mainstream, I dread that he will be taking a great deal of credit for it (and he already is).

  3. […] have argued that white privilege helps artists like Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke sell black music better than black artists like it did for Elvis Presley.  Some […]

  4. LOL
    March 7th, 2014

    lol You mad or nah? Get over yourself. Since MJ came out NO ONE, (black, white or indifferent) who is doing pop music is original! Even Beyonce samples other artists, granted she chooses lesser known gems so that she can pass them off as her own but that’s cool good for her. Everyone is influenced by someone. Justin can’t prevent his white privilege from existing. It just is. Just like brown folk and renounce our browness. My advice is instead of wasting this platform and media space bashing justin why don’t you write about and give some shine to those black artist from whom JT is allegedly ripping off or who you feel are getting the short end of the stick. Oh and by the way Janet is gonna be aight! She’s JANET JACKSON! Let’s be real though it ain’t like her last few albums were bangers! I’m just saying she was on the downswing long before the super bowl. IMHO

  5. tlewisisdope
    March 10th, 2014

    Clearly you haven’t read the rest of this site, which has any number of articles about black artists.

  6. vm
    April 22nd, 2019

    i’m coming across this article in April 2019 and i think it aged well considering ‘Man of the Woods’.

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