This is, culturally, a significant album. Not because of the music (we’ll come to that in a minute) but because it’s the first concerted attempt by a white teen artist to cross over to a black audience since George Michael. It’s a sign of the times – an indication that teen pop in America is dead on its feet and that the ‘urban’ (ie black) audience is running the Billboard Hot 100. In USA 2002, it’s all about Ashanti, not Britney; Nelly and Kelly, not Gareth and Will; Murder Inc, not Cheiron, the Swedish studio that furnished everyone from the Backstreet Boys to Westlife with hits.
In one way – as Nelly argued in NME a few months ago – this is a triumph. Despite two decades of attempts to censor, denigrate and suppress the rock’n’roll of black America (attempts which still go on today – witness Virgin Radio’s pathetic boast that they don’t play hip-hop or R&B), it’s nevertheless clawed its way to commercial supremacy, largely without watering itself down or selling out to whitey. Which brings us to ‘Justified’. If you were a talented black vocalist, how would you feel about a white *N Sync member with a half-decent voice getting, apparently effortlessly, the cream of black hip-hop and R&B to co-write and produce his debut solo album? We think you’d be justified in feeling pissed off.
‘Justified’ sees Timberlake poncing off black talent – Timbaland and The Neptunes – because that’s the commercially savvy thing to do. Unlike, say, Dusty in Memphis, Bowie in Philadelphia or Eminem in LA, he brings nothing to the table other than his own celebrity status. Vocally, Usher, to pick a random example, could have him for breakfast. Lyrically (presumably the reason every track bears his co-writing credit) all he’s got are soppy platitudes that may or may not be about Britney.
Though NME has only heard the album once (Jive won’t let it out of their office for fear of bootleggers), Timberlake, having failed to imprint his personality on ‘Justified’, simply stands or falls on the strength of the songs. Luckily for him, half a dozen of them – mainly Timbaland’s – are brilliant. Next single ‘Cry Me A River’ melds analogue synthesizers, Arabian riffs and Gregorian chants into something infinitely graceful and mysterious. ‘(And She Said) Take Me Now’, featuring an inaudible Janet Jackson, judders thrillingly though disco, ’80s funk and dub. The Neptunes’ ‘Rock Your Body’ could easily fit onto ‘Off The Wall’ (interestingly, some of the tracks on ‘Justified’ were originally rejected by Michael Jackson). But Justin isn’t the reason they’re brilliant – and that’s what sticks in the throat.