The 50 Best Songs of 2002

Justin Timberlake – Everything I Thought It Was

When did Justin Timberlake lose his mojo? Was it during that six-month stretch between The 20/20 Experience (a first-class prestige-pop album) and The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 (a tedious slog)? Perhaps it was more recently, when he sought to rebrand himself as a rustic, flannel-wearing dad livin’ off the land on 2018 misfire Man of the Woods. (Remember the post-apocalyptic prepper sex jam “Supplies”? Was that all some Trump-era mass hallucination?) 

Brushing off the reputational fallout from Britney’s memoir, Timberlake now relinquishes the family-friendly glow of Woods and tries to reintroduce himself as an edgy, sexually vigorous ladies’ man on Everything I Thought It Was. Dabbling in the club-ready sounds of modern R&B and hip-hop—with help from producers like Rob Knox, Danja, and longtime collaborator Timbaland—Everything presents a harder-edged JT, who tries a little of everything over 77 minutes but adds remarkably little to the pop landscape. 

Once an effortless trend-setter who brought sweaty club-funk into the mainstream with “SexyBack” and lit up a million wedding receptions with “Suit & Tie,” Timberlake now sounds like he’s playing catch-up on a decade of pop developments. “Memphis” summons the moody beats and Auto-Tuned singing of vintage Drake, with a rap coda that finds Timberlake mimicking the cadence of Kendrick Lamar. “Fuckin’ Up the Disco” borrows from Ty Dolla $ign’s bag of syrupy vocal tricks, though the undercooked disco groove can’t redeem wack lyrics like “Got my Gucci Crocs on right now, but we can slide like sandals.” The best tracks flaunt leaner, feel-good grooves, like the dancefloor call-and-response of “My Favorite Drug” or the elastic funk of “Play.” The supple, disco-powered “No Angels” is solid, but there’s nothing as inspired or distinctive or downright weird as the 10th-best song on FutureSex/LoveSounds

The album’s middle stretch is weighed down by an endless string of horned-up R&B jams with trap-adjacent beats, evoking modern R&B stars like SZA and Teyana Taylor. Did you know that Justin Timberlake fucks? These songs—including the falsetto-laced “Technicolor,” the ‘80s-pop-by-way-of-E•MO•TION “Love & War,” the metaphor-challenged “What Lovers Do,” and the embarrassingly porny come-ons of “Infinity Sex”—will make sure you’re very aware. (In the latter, there’s a moment where Timberlake rhymes “I know the address on your mattress / Just imagine the acrobatics” and gets so hot and bothered he lets out a little “Woo!”) 

The problem is: being good at sex and being good at writing songs about sex are two very different skills. And these songs are simply not as freaky as Timberlake’s post-coital boasts want you to believe they are. Maybe JT idol Prince could pull off a triplet like “I don’t know you anymore / Soon as all your clothes hit the floor / Pray this hotel room is insured”—but paired with the tepid, normie disco-pop of “Infinity Sex,” it falls flat. When you listen to Prince’s best sex jams (see: “Do Me, Baby,” “International Lover”), the Purple One rides waves of tension and release, making you feel like Prince is seducing you personally. By comparison, Timberlake’s sex jams induce the feeling of listening to your buddy’s cringey, TMI-filled wedding vows while impatiently eyeing the hor d’oeuvres table. 

The album nears the finish line with “Paradise,” a vaguely spiritual, blandly inspirational reunion of Timberlake’s old NSYNC bandmates, with whom he appeared at the VMAs last year. Maybe they’re whetting the appetite for a full reunion tour, or maybe JT is trying to have it both ways, playing the millennial nostalgia card while continuing to center his own career (the track is billed as Timberlake “featuring NSYNC”). “I’ve been waiting forever / Right here for this moment,” the singer croons in communion with his boyhood bandmates. 

What exactly “this moment” entails, the song is too maddeningly vague to explain. “Everything is happening / And it’s just what I imagined”—it’s a bundle of platitudes, an apt climax for an album that’s everything you thought it was but has nothing to say. – GRADE: D


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