I can hardly believe that ‘Like I Love You’ was Justin Timberlake’s debut solo single. Since installed as one of the pop icons of our era (even where he so patently aped the styles and mannerisms of so many of yesteryear’s icons), it seems an odd thing that his debut, Neptunes-produced and an ode to the funk era according to Pharrell, was this song. Going back to the beginnings of pop stars’ fame has become a theme of late with J’s recent return to ‘One More Time’-era Britney but it has always been a topic of interest to me. If anything, it proves that first impressions aren’t everything. Surely, ‘… Baby One More Time’ was an explosive single which, coupled with a controversial video, was bound for success. But other mainstream artists still moving numbers today had less auspicious starts. Rihanna’s underwhelming ‘Pon De Replay’ strikes me as a prime example but Lupe Fiasco’s verse on Kanye’s ‘Touch The Sky’ and Nicki Minaj’s Annie Lennox-sampling ‘Your Love‘ are further evidence of the notion that you don’t have to come out swinging to be a stayer.
It’s not that ‘Like I Love You’ is a bad song. Far from it. But as with the one-speed ‘Pon De Replay’ and Minaj’s sappy debut, it doesn’t strike you as the type of track that might launch a thousand singles. And in leading out Timberlake’s ‘Justified‘ boasting heavy hitters like ‘Rock Your Body’ and ‘Cry Me A River’, the guitar-centric loop at the heart of ‘Like I Love You’ doesn’t give you the impression that it’s intent on establishing the career one of today’s highest selling pop artists. Perhaps it has something to do with the time. 2002 mightn’t have required the whizzbang excitement that today’s Top 40 consuming populace demands and it might well have been enough to trade on the adoration of millions of residual *NSYNC fans. To that end, establishing the urban theme that would dominate his debut’s video clips, the stylists didn’t move JT on too far from the homeboy look that ruled his boy-band days, introducing a beanie and leather jacket to the mix but maintaining the tee-shirt, hat and, critically, those finger-less gloves.
With a great melody running the chorus and plenty of opportunity for falsetto experimentation beyond, ‘Like I Love You’ appears a slow introduction to The New Justin who, although still rocking the leather gloves, was taking things far more hip-hop/RnB than when the strings were attached to a well-oiled Sony BMG boy-band machine. It is, I think, for this reason that ‘Like I Love You’ was kept from the top chart spot in the UK by Nelly and Kelly’s tepid ‘Dilemma‘ and only managed a #11 position in the US – the country that later so thoroughly embraced sophomore effort ‘FutureSex/LoveSounds’ and the five Top 10 singles it spawned. Clipse’s Pusha T and Malice are no Ludacris or Snoop Dogg – rappers for hire to spruce up otherwise poppy tunes – and so their inclusion here, canvassing cocaine, shots and threesomes in two short verses, is some indication of Timberlake trying to leave his pop roots behind. Total nerd, attempted-crunk moves throughout the rap section on JT’s part demonstrate that this was still early days. But rather than leading out with a guaranteed hit like ‘Rock Your Body’, ‘Like I Love You’ as a debut single is also proof that bravery in picking challenging tracks is rewarded, particularly in the early days.
Justin Timberlake – Like I Love You