Taken from the September 2006 issue of Dazed & Confused:
“Do you ever wake up in the morning and feel depressed that you will never make a greater impact than Michael Jackson?”
Sometimes, when he’s thinking, Justin Timberlake locks his fingers together, rotates his torso and his vertebrae crack audibly. “Oh. Umm. (Twist.) That’s a specific… question. I mean I’d be (crack) lying if I said I haven’t had that feeling. But it’s always followed with the feeling of, you know, like who wants… I don’t want to be Michael Jackson. There are artists out there, who will remain nameless, that want to be the next Michael Jackson. But if it comes with all the shit he’s got, I don’t want it.”In a sunny room of an expensive hotel in Paris, mid-heatwave, Timberlake sits back in a big chair next to a table spread with complimentary croissants that will remain uneaten along with coffee that is going cold, and his non-stop life on the tightrope of ambition halts for several seconds over this question. The 25-year-old singer/dancer/ actor pauses and falls into a furrow of contemplation. "I don’t aspire to be the biggest pop star on the planet, I aspire to get people’s asses off the wall, make people sing, make people dance, make people feel somethingAnd if in that way, I do become the next Michael Jackson, then great. But I don’t have any aspiration to invent the next moonwalk. (Snap).”
Music needs an enema, It needs a fuckin’ kick to the balls
When a subject animates Timberlake, he slides to the edge of his seat, gesticulates and sometimes makes his point by singing, tapping out a rhythm or beatboxing a break. When he is cogitating deeply, his crystal sapphire eyes lock with yours in a suspicious gaze so intense that it could start a campfire. And when he just doesn’t know, he stretches his lean limbs, snaps his knuckles, flexes his neck, athletically rotates his spine and his vertebrae grind and snap beneath his chequered work shirt, like it’s his skeleton that is coming to a conclusion – or as if his body is doing the talking. Timberlake’s presence is intensely physical, and that’s only proper for a performer whose music works best where all populist music should – in the middle of the Friday night dancefloor. But there has been a lot of thinking in the Timberlake camp recently, a lot of snap and crackle in the name of pop. And not a moment to soon, because after his fireball emergence in 2002, Timberlake resurfaces three years later with the plan, the players, the moves, the sounds and most importantly the ambition to give pop music the kick in the ass it desperately needs.
His album is called FutureSex/LoveSounds, and his new single, “SexyBack”. Both use compound nouns to express joined-up pop thinking, and you hardly need to be a semiotician to pinpoint the key preoccupations of the next phase of his project to become a fully realised version of himself rather than a cut-price karaoke King of Pop. What’s more, there is the scent of revolution between the grooves of a caustic, overdriven disco stomp where the distorted vocals observe, “I’m bringing Sexy Back/ Those motherfuckers don't know how to act.” “Music needs an enema,” he says. “It needs a fuckin’ kick to the balls, that’s what it needs. It constantly needs that and if I’m not going to do it, who’s going to do it? I can’t come out with Justified Pt II, know what I mean? That’s too easy – I’ve got to kick myself in the balls, and keep pushing myself to do something new, cos if I’m not going to do that, what else is there to do?"
I don’t aspire to be the biggest pop star on the planet, I aspire to get people’s asses off the wall, make people sing, make people dance, make people feel something
It goes without saying that Timberlake is fit, in every sense of the word. He is the idea of pop made flesh – a raw, sunny southern states kid full of Tom Sawyer vitality, a jockish awe at the unfolding possibilities of life, and the millionaire élan that got him intimate with Kylie Minogue’s bottom. He is handsome, lean, clean, groomed, polite and starry, although in an untucked, low-wattage, hey-have-some-coffee kind of way, and wears his seven million-units-and-counting fame very lightly.
His reasonably sized entourage – some brawny Southern guys, manager-mum Lynn, an assortment of American label folk milling in the hotel corridors – is no indicator of the calibre of his fame. Cameron Diaz is said to be in one of these rooms, but it doesn’t really matter. Starstruck female guests go knock-kneed as they fuss around, trying to get their photograph taken with the star. He has this effect on women, whether it’s one of them or 5,000 of them. It’s all part of the day job if you’re the only serious millennial pretender to Jacko’s throne, and – if we’re honest – only those with feet of lead, a heart of stone or ears of cloth could really find much to dislike in him. Global fedora sales went through the roof back in 2002 when Timberlake peeled off his *NSYNC shrinkwrapping, body-popped into the global consciousness and delivered three stone-cold smash hit singles that you’re guaranteed to be hearing at wedding discos – the true mark of timeless music – for many years to come. The NERDproduced “Rock Your Body” and “Like I Love You”, along with Timbaland’s synthetically forlorn “Cry Me A River”, in all their emoted, falsetto effervescence, soundtracked the cause and effect of his messy break-up with Britney.
Ultimately, it was her loss because for most of 2002 and 2003, the flamboyantly talented, fatally sexy performer seized hold of the public imagination and moonwalked it all the way to the top of the charts in a firestorm of paparazzi flash, pausing briefly to tear Janet Jackson’s clothes off en route. Timberlake’s pop moment was the brightest, slickest and starriest in a long time, matched on this side of the millennium only by OutKast’s “Hey Ya!”. Conventional wisdom dictates that the former Mickey Mouse Club star should never have been allowed to get away with it, minting gilt-edged credibility from the shrivelled remains of his boyband years. And Timberlake, now deep into his recovery from the *NSYNC experience, is only too aware of the fact. “We’ve been here before, talking about Justified,” he says. “Everybody was like, ‘You’ve never done this before!’ And now, with FutureSex/LoveSounds, it’s like, ‘You’ve never done this before!’ And that’s sort of the point. We should all take a nod from Madonna. She made a career out of that. And I’ve made a career out of things I probably shouldn’t be trying. It’s intriguing. So fuck it.” Central to Timberlake Phase III is a dedication to meddle once more with the constrictions imposed upon him, for no other reason than because he can, or because he thinks he ought to. He began with two objectives. Firstly, he says, “to give people something new. And not necessarily something new for me. Like, listening to the radio, I mean personally, this sounds like shit. It’s really like, these are good for a minute, then not good at all, and then you feel cheated. Everything has become like an infomercial.” While that may sound rich coming from the guy who gave you the McTravesty of “I’m Loving It”, now consider that his second objective is as audacious as the first: “To make a body of work,” he says, “make an album” – knowing full well that in this era of downloading, the album is all but obsolete. “Because nobody does that any more. I mean, if I’m gonna follow what everyone is doing, I might as well pick something else to do. You know, four more films.
But that’s something that I won’t do. I’d rather people say this guy has completely lost his mind than say, ‘oh well, we’ve heard that before’. But I’m not gonna completely lose my mind.I’m gonna push it as far as I can.” Timberlake thinks he’s “figured out that there is a way to do music, to be considered a pop star and be taken seriously”, and today aims no lower than stretching the pop template – the three-minute, four-chord format that’s increasingly short on innovation – as far as he can, from deep with the machine. “Sexy Ladies” is a case in point. Typical of Timbaland’s pinballing digital trickery, it’s a brilliant mess of contradictions, but it also reconciles Justin Timberlake’s polarised personalities, the balladeer and the body-rocker. A four-to-the-floor stomp marks it initially at house music tempo; then a half-time snare morphs it into slow-bounce hip hop track. Then, spiralling Kraftwerkesque synth lines float off into the stratosphere, and in comes Timberlake’s falsetto. A torch song you can hop to, or a rave track you can seduce to, “Sexy Ladies” sounds threateningly futuristic, totally alien and yet completely familiar. In short, it sounds like the Number One that’s bound to happen when you multiply Timberlake by Timbaland. Which is why it indicates that FutureSex/LoveSounds – an album substantially co-produced by Timberlake and Timbaland, with input from music’s resident zen master Rick Rubin – is a brave idea confidently executed (or at least the few songs that his paranoid record label permitted us to hear a couple of times). FutureSex/LoveSounds is a grandiose title that reveals Timberlake’s broadened horizons and creative vision. He gets animated about Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” vocals, and how it inspired him to scour his own voice on “SexyBack” by tracking it through a guitar amp.
Well, fuck it, if Pink Floyd can do it, why can’t I?
He trills about Josh Homme, the Eagles Of Death Metal and how Prince turned music on its head in the 80s. Working with Timbaland, the aspiration was to create another “six or seven ‘Cry Me A Rivers’,” he says – songs smouldering with emotional incandescence. Yet it is on “Another Song”, a genuinely affecting doo-wopish piano ballad produced by Rick Rubin, that Timberlake edges closest to raw expression of heartbreak. In the event, Rubin didn’t so much produce as facilitate the song’s coming to life, assembling some ancient and accomplished jazz dudes, and sitting on the couch radiating positive vibrations. “‘He’s like this Buddha,” Timberlake says. “He doesn’t touch a button, he comes in and sits on the couch, Indian style, with no shoes on, tugging his beard… and he listens. He doesn’t try to craft the song, he lets you be the songwriter and says ‘this would sound better like this’.” Timberlake more than hints that “Another Song”, and the other six or seven tracks he made with Rick Rubin, already constitute the beginning of the next project. We talk about Dark Side of the Moon, because some of the tracks on FutureSex/LoveSounds last for four or five minutes and bleed into one another. Does this mean it is not only an album, but a concept album? “Yeah.” That’s ambitious. “Well, fuck it,” Timberlake says. “If Pink Floyd can do it, why can’t I? It’s there for the taking, because quite frankly who else is going to do it? In a humble way, I do realise I have a platform, so If I’m not going to push it, who is?” There is a risk you could alienate the younger end of your fanbase. “Honestly? I’ve never tried to make music for 12-year-olds,” he says. “That’s the point of being 12 though, that you want to listen to the things that 18-year-olds listen to. When I was 12, 13, I wanted to know what pot was and what alcohol felt like. I wanted to know what sexual music felt like. That’s the point of growing up.”
Timberlake talks about the first time he felt the nag of pop music in his groin. The track was George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex”. He was in the car, probably ten years old. “My mum was singing it. It was weird, it was disgusting. I remember listening to the song and thinking, ‘I wonder what he means by that?’ That and Prince, “Gett Off” and “Kiss”, thinking, what is he talking about? Those songs are meant to draw sexuality out of people.” However, Timberlake has never had sex to his own music – “I can’t. I have trouble having sex to music, because I’ll start picking out the chords” – but equally he has never, ever forgotten that pop’s key function is to articulate the basic emotions: lust, heartbreak and anger. He and his friend Trace did their own quality control on FutureSex/LoveSounds. “Always do the car test,” he explains. “You put the songs on a CD in their rough form, you turn it up and you drive around playing it. We did it in Miami, Virginia, LA, Tennessee…” “Driving by the ocean with the windows down,” Timberlake says. “Trace said to me, ‘You know what this is? This is The Future. This is something new. This is what music should be.’ That’s what all the greats have done. The Beatles took black music and made it their own. Michael Jackson took James Brown and turned it into Michael Jackson. Prince took Jimi Hendrix and turned it into Prince.” But this time, he just took himself and invented his own future. That’s “great”. That’s why we need Justin Timberlake. He pops his collars, locks his fingers and cracks his bones. Justin Timberlake is fresh, and he is ready.