With not much time to just sit anywhere for too long these days, Timberlake says that listening to good music keeps him sane. He loves absorbing the artistry of the talents as divers as Bonnie Raitt, Jay-Z, and Coldplay, and channels these influences into his own work. “Music should reflect what life is about. No more thinking about what a certain sound has to be. Like, ‘Y’all are thugs so y’all gotta say this.’ Or, ‘Y’all are dance-music artists so y’all gotta make sure the beat sounds like this,’” he says. “That’s why Eminem is so hot; he just writes whatever the hell he wants to say and just says it.”
Rewind to May 2002, when Timberlake first began working on his solo debut. He’s grinding it out at Master Sound Recording Studios in Virginia Beach. Pharrell Williams scribbles down lyrics and shows them to Timberlake for input. A crazy track called “Rock Your Body” booms out of the speakers. It’s the kind of record that makes folks put down their drinks and gallop to the dance floor. While Timberlake vocalizes in the booth to warm up his tenor, Williams looks like a mad scientist eager to finish his creation. “There’s no need to overproduce music. If it’s an apple, let it be an apple,” says Williams to no one in particular. “We don’t have to take a syringe and shoot some sugar into it.”
As Timberlake gives the signal that he’s ready, they try out the first verse. He sings it effortlessly with minor direction. “Let’s try it more breathy, and make sure you hit those notes,” offers Williams. Timberlake stared at him intently, then meticulously repeats each intonation on every syllable. Once he’s got it, Timberlake runs to the booth to knock it out. “I try not to spend too much time to make vocals perfect ‘cause I want people to feel what I’m saying,” Timberlake says later. “I don’t like singers who sing so you can hear them sing. I appreciate the people who have something to say.”
By the time they begin work on the melody for the bridge, Timberlake and Williams are getting silly. They’re standing side by side, stomping back and forth in a little two-step dance. The pair met for the first time in New York’s Spa nightclub shortly before recording N’Sync’s “Girlfriend” and hit it off immediately, both personally and professionally. “Pharrell’s someone I look up to musically, and he’s my homeboy,” Timberlake says. That’s a deadly combination for bringing out the artist in you.”
The Neptunes could easily have given Timberlake a “Girlfriend Part 2,”and no one would have been mad. “I wanted to break the rules in terms of what people thought we were going to do for Justin,” Williams says. So the producers decided to use Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall as inspiration. In fact, they dusted off five songs they submitted for Jackson’s HIStory Volume 1 and Invincible albums that were rejected. Williams rewrote parts of those songs with Timberlake and created new versions of “Senorita,” “Let’s Take a Ride,” “Last Night,” “Nothin’ Else,” and “Take It From Here."
“Pharrell wants to change the world through music, and I’ve never met anyone who is so humble yet driven at the same time,” Timberlake says. “There are things I’ve talked about with him that I haven’t talked about with anyone else."
It’s safe to assume that some of those things include Timberlake’s breakup with Britney Spears. “I feel I became so consumed with her that I didn’t see some things that I should have seen,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m saying too much by saying she knows she knows why this happened. Britney’s a fire sign, a Sagittarius, and they do things on a whim. I love her; we have a lot of history, and she’s the closest anybody ever got to me.” Using his heartbreak as inspiration for Justified made creating the album therapeutic. “I can’t honestly say I’ve gotten used to it ‘cause the nights are crazy. I’ve cried myself to sleep looking at the ceiling, missing what we had.” But Timberlake says he’s still friends with Spears. And judging from the rumors linking Timberlake to the likes of Janet Jackson and Alyssa Milano, he’s easing into the single life just fine.