The worlds of pop and R&B have had a sturdy brick wall separating the two genres for quite some time and were almost segregated in a sense. The sound of music may be homogenized in 2016, but in decades prior, it was long understood that although R&B music could be popular among Caucasians and other races, it was ultimately considered a genre for black people, whereas pop was the playground for more melanin-deficient acts.
Over the course of time, few artists have truly been able to straddle the line between the two and achieve acclaim on both sides of the spectrum without alienating the other. A number of artists have been able to cross over and earn fans on each side with their respective style of music, but actually tossing them in a melting pot and creating magic that can not be defined or relegated to one box is the test of a true icon and visionary. The first to accomplish this feat was Micheal Jackson, whose sound would evolve from catchy urban jukebox ditties during the late ’70s and early ’80s into pop friendly anthems during his run in the late ’80s and early ’90s, ultimately earning him the distinction of being hailed the “King of Pop.” The second would be Justin Timberlake, whose trajectory as a creative was eerily similar to that of Jackson.
Both first found success as the integral cog in the respective machines that were the Jackson 5 and ‘NSYNC, acts that would both sell millions of units and serve as blueprints as to what it meant to be an elite boy-band in the ’70s and aughts, respectively. Timberlake, like Jackson, was singled out as the clear-cut star of his group, ‘NSYNC, who would make a seismic impact with their self-titled album in 1998, which would sell over 11 million copies worldwide. ‘NSYNC would also achieve unprecedented success with their sophomore effort, No Strings Attached, which would sell 2.4 million copies in its first week of release in 2000 and stamp them as the undisputed No. 1 boy-band in music.
However, just as Michael would chose to breakout on his own outside of the confines of his group, Timberlake would also take that leap of faith after ‘NSYNC’s third studio-album, Celebrity, which was released in July of 2001. With ‘NSYNC deciding to go on hiatus, Timberlake would quickly transition into a solo career, premiering his debut solo single, “Like I Love You,” at the 2002 MTV Music Video Awards. The single, which would peak at No. 11 on the Hot 100, would pave the way for his debut solo effort, Justified, which arrived in November of 2002.
Debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, the album fell short of the initial success of Timberlake’s albums as a member of ‘NSYNC, moving a successful, yet paltry 439,000 copies in its first week when compared to Celebrity‘s first week tally of 1,879,495 units sold.
Justified, which saw Timberlake teaming up with producers The Neptunes, and Timbaland for the bulk of the album, was a stark contrast to his previous work with ‘NSYNC and was steeped in r&b, which the singer had admitted was the actual music he gravitated to while growing up as a kid in Memphis. Taking a crash course in how to make a definitive R&B album by listening to classics from previous eras, Timberlake and his production team instantly knew they had something unique up their sleeves.
“We picked him up right after he checked into his hotel,” Chad Hugo, one half of The Neptunes, shared with MTV News. “We drove around in the car listening to old Earth, Wind & Fire albums, and he was totally with it. The background of those songs is the feeling we wanted to incorporate into the music. He was like, ‘Nobody’s ever heard anything like that before … a white boy singing this kind of music.’ He didn’t care what people would say.”