When Justin Timberlake decided to strike out on his own in 2002, it was a move that had fans and music critics alike wondering exactly what the 22-year-old singer was thinking.
NSYNC was on top of the world, just coming off their Celebrity Tour, the second tour to promote their third (and what would become their final) album of the same name. Their greatest rivals, The Backstreet Boys, had fallen into what would be a lengthy hiatus of their own. And it had truly been quite some time since any boy band (or girl group, for that matter) had been able to produced a performer worthy of going solo and launching a career like Michael Jackson had done 20 years earlier.
To put it mildly, Timberlake was taking a risk. And then along came Justified.
For his first output without his bandmates, who were telling fans at the time they were simply on a hiatus, Timberlake followed the path to total autonomy over his artistic expression that began on NSYNC's Celebrity album, which he and JC Chasez wrote and produced several tracks on. For six weeks, Timberlake hunkered down with hip-hop stars Timbaland and The Neptunes, as well as singer Brian McKnight, to create an album that, if not purposely anti-NSYNC, at least announced to that group's fans that its star vocalist had done some growing up. And knew a thing or two about music history, to boot.
"I wasn't consciously trying to make a non-NSYNC record," he told Billboard just days ahead of the album's November 5, 2002 release. "I was trying to make a multi-dimensional record; a record that captured the vibe of my favorite time in music, the '60s. For the six weeks that we worked on these songs, I got to live in my own musical dream world and play a little hip-hop, a little old-school R&B, a little classic rock. It was so much fun—and I learned a lot about making music in a totally different way than I was used to."
Success was not guaranteed. First, there were the comparisons to Jackson, the last male pop star of any real consequence to attempt anything like this, to overcome. Then there were the expectations of NSYNC fans to subvert. Would this album nakedly ape Jackson's type? Or simply be an extension of the boy band's sound?
Lead single "Like I Love You" wouldn't help on the former front, with its vocal licks that felt quite reminiscent of the "Thriller" singer, but right off the bat it was clear that, despite his protestations otherwise, the group that brought him success—and the limitations that came along with being a member—was firmly in Timberlake's rear-view mirror.
"We drove around in the car listening to old Earth, Wind & Fire albums, and he was totally with it," Chad Hugo, one half of The Neptunes, told MTV at the time. "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."
"We listened to Off the Wall and Thriller a bunch of times to really get the feel of them and create something that's not a sample, but similar to those songs without recycling them," the producer added. "We just wanted to re-create that sense of those timeless, classic songs, without any of the 'bling, bling, hit me on my two-way' style of the new R&B. It has elements of the old and the new."
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"I was raised on Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, and Al Green; they're the artists who have shaped the way I approach music," Timberlake explained to Billboard. "When I sing, I don't close my eyes and try to channel Michael Jackson, who has had an undeniable influence on me as a stage performer. I think about Donny Hathaway. I think about how 100% present he was in his songs. He seemed to be living each word, each syllable as he sang it. That's the energy I'm reaching for when I sing."
It's that alchemy of old and new that Hugo spoke about 15 years ago that was so striking when the album was finally released. Justified was unlike anything on the radio at that time, whether it was "Senorita" with its Latin-influenced vibe and unforgettable call-and-response section, Timbaland's sputtering production on "(Oh No) What You Got" and "Cry Me a River," or the Wonder-esque "Nothin' Else." The album was confluence of influences, references and interpretations. And it was one that said "You thought you knew Justin Timberlake? You had no idea." (It would also go on to influence pop music in ways we're all still hearing on the radio, whether you realize it or not.)
While the album bears the marks of a clear collaborative effort—after all, without the now classic production from Timbaland and The Neptunes, we might not be here talking about Justified these 15 years later—it's clear from just one listen that Timberlake poured everything he had into this project. After all, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Regardless of his NSYNC platform, he had to get this right and let the world know who Justin Timberlake was as an artist.
"He would stay up late every night just to finish up backing vocals," Hugo recalled at the time. "I think people want to put him in a box, a boy band box, or an 'NSYNC box, but he's not like that. He's a real individual and a dope vocalist."
McKnight, who worked with Timberlake on the album's closing track "Never Again" (which was ironically the most typically NSYNC ballad of the bunch, by the way), credits the album's success with the singer's ability "to work with people that can create that vision that he has in his head," as he recently told Bustle. "He's one of the most talented people I've ever met. And what's really great about him is that he also knows exactly what he wants. And consequently he knows what he doesn't want too."
The album would go on to debut at No. 2, earn Timberlake four Grammy nominations and one win, and ultimately launch one of the most successful pop star careers in the modern age.
And just like that, the clear path to transition out of musical group to solo artist was born. In this day and age, when it seems like a former boy band member releases their debut album every month, it's easy to forget what a trailblazer Timberlake was 15 years ago. While the Nick Jonas, Zayn Maliks, and Harry Styles of the world fight it out for chart dominance, it'll be the ones who truly re-introduce themselves to the world in an a way that demonstrates that their musical personality isn't indistinguishable from the group they've outgrown who will have any real shot.
That is, until Timberlake himself returns with his upcoming album and blows them all out of the water.