The first thought is, Oh my god Justin, what have you done? The girl I first listened to this newbie from Justin Timberlake with suggested I write about it for the blog. No, I responded emphatically, I don’t really like doing take-down pieces. This is more of a peace and love style blog. But the pull of JT, the gravitational celebrity force that the new Mr Jessica Biel exudes and the potential weight of this song as an introduction to the next phase of the career of everyone’s favourite Mouseketeer (sorry Britney) meant that ethical pressures inevitably bent to a realistic critical awareness which demanded some engagement with this, the first track to come from the forthcoming ‘The 20/20 Experience’. Given that his last two (and only two) solo albums, ‘Justified‘ (2002) and ‘FutureSex/LoveSounds’ (2006) have so defined the noughties, it’s only reasonable to assume that his upcoming third studio release will extend a legacy of reinventing the pop/RnB wheel out into the 2000-teens. I’m not quite sure that it’s raw talent alone that garners Timberlake the attention he gets but the combination of high-profile dating, good acting choices and an ear for the right producers has led him to a point where genre-warping, era-shaping work is no longer an aspiration but an expectation.
Which is why, on paper at least, ‘Suit & Tie’ appeared invincible. The Timberlake-Timbaland connect has ostensibly renewed its ties on this album and it’s big man Tim Mosley who gets production dibs on this first single again (as he did with Justified – ‘Like I Love You‘ – and FutureSex – ‘SexyBack’). Timbaland doesn’t typically involve himself with very ritzy, dense beats, instead working with artists who are capable of inspiring vocal performances over what are, often, fairly elementary sounds. It’s not that Timbaland can’t produce well. It’s that he typically picks artists who are, themselves, even better. Missy Elliott, Nelly Furtado, Bjork (!) and the late Aaliyah have all received the Timbaland treatment and lifted their game accordingly to fit with his sparse approach to production. Timberlake is no different. The vocals trills, breakdowns, scatting and tricks that punctuate his first two albums can be seen as a response to the challenges of working with the barren soundscapes offered up by Timbaland and another long-time collaborator in Pharrell Williams. The opening, wonky 40-second intro is classic Timbaland. Slowed-down, heavy on the drum machines and with a never-so-subtle dash of Tim himself, crudely harmonising with his baritone, it sets a good contrast for the inevitable segue into the song proper. And then the horns die away, JT comes in with the falsetto and… it’s all just so… strange.
Said Timberlake denigrator opined that this was music that you might listen to on hold. While I can’t completely agree (and might even be pleasantly surprised if I got this on the phone to the insurance company), there is definitely a certain element of sleaze, of cheap champagne and velour, of making it rain with trumpets about all of this. And not in a good way. With much of this ‘forward-leaning’ pop, the battle is one of attrition. You don’t necessarily like it at first but over time, with repeated airplay and zeitgeist infiltration, it becomes hard to avoid. Think ‘Niggas In Paris‘. Or most of the ‘Watch The Throne’ album for that matter. But with ‘Suit & Tie’ there is not even really a skerrick of material that makes you think ‘This might be the hook that inexorably drags me into this song.’ Rather, it is an exercise in self-interest, in stasis and in over-confidence. There might well be the beginnings of a great song in ‘Suit & Tie’ but it never reaches the heights some of its parts hint at. It is a noisy, messy piece of elevator-style music that speaks of the kind of scenes conjured up by second-rate RnB feature artists like Bobby Valentino rather than of a megastar of the genre and of pop more generally. Jay-Z is uninspiring playing his usual status-obsessed self and JT, for his part, plays the role of shlocky neo-funk singer exceedingly well. This song helped launch the Timberlake-backed MySpace earlier in the week. Here’s hoping that erstwhile social network, renewed, is fresher than this.
Justin Timberlake – Suit & Tie Ft. Jay-Z