Read VIBE’s Feb 2003 Justin Timberlake Cover Story

With Justin Timberlake finally emerging from musical hibernation with new single “Suit & Tie,” VIBE combed through our archives for our cover story with the superstar. Here’s a look at JT on the brink of his solo breakout.

Imitation Of Life

Justin Timberlake, the pop star, is flipping the script. On his solo debut, Justified, this son of the Southern music capital of Memphis bares his heart and soul by way of R&B. Mimi Valdes tracks the singer through the recording process and discovers his greatest fears and passions

It’s almost 2 a.m. on a cool, clear night in September. Justin Timberlake, lounging in jeans and a T-shirt, is glued to the TV screen inside his spacious Mexican-style home, which is perched on a sprawling 10 acres in the Hollywood Hills and surrounded by breathtaking views. Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes has just joined him to preview the video for “Like I Love You,” the first single off Timberlake’s solo outing. The clip debuts on MTV the next day, and Timberlake seems both anxious and excited. “This will be the fourth time I’ve seen it. Each time I catch something new,” he says. There had already been some backlash on radio call-in shows around the country following his performance of the song at the MTV Video Music Awards a little over a week ago. Some said Timberlake, with his moonwalk, tipped-over fedora, and gloves, was too Usher-like, while others said he was painfully Michael Jackson-esque. “People are so ready to hate,” says Timberlake, who shrugs off the harsh criticism.

None of these negative opinions changes the fact that Timberlake’s first solo album, Justified, may go down as one of the best R&B records in recent memory. “People will be able to look back at Justin’s CD in years to come and say that it was definitely fresh, something that was needed at the time,” says Williams. Indeed, the buzz is that Justified has the potential to have an impact similar to Mary J. Blige’s classic What’s the 411? or D’Angelo’s groundbreaking Brown Sugar. Artists and record executives were all buzzing about Justified six months before its release. For his part, Timberlake, 22, is hopeful, but has reservations. “What I’m mostly scared about is that people won’t get me,” he says. I’m really giving people a piece of me in my purest form as far as my music goes. When you do that, it’s like giving your heart.”

Imagine the challenges faced by a teen pop group’s front man who decides to do a 180 and sing hard-core R&B for his solo debut. After all, many fans and critics are only comfortable when they can neatly fit an artist into a specific box. Having rejected his assigned position, Timberlake is forced to prove himself to a somewhat skeptical urban audience, and his credibility is on the line. N’Sync’s “Gone” and “Girlfriend” (co-written by Timberlake) from Celebrity were as R&B as songs come, and they quickly crossed over from pop to urban radio. The videos were even in heavy rotation on BET.

Still, they were only subtle hints of the sound that would evolve into Justified. Historically, white boys have had to tread lightly in predominantly black musical art forms, and vice versa. However, if an artist innovatively puts it down, like an Eminem, talent ultimately prevails. “It’s just a matter of knowledge and exposure,” says Professor Nathan Davis, 65, who teaches ethnomusicology in the University of Pittsburgh’s music department. “If someone grows up listening to certain music or around that environment, at that point, it’s not the color.”

At least that’s what Timberlake is counting on. He decided to record Justified when he realized the material he was writing was a clear departure from the bubblegum tunes for which N’Sync was known. “The guys and me are a group,” he says, “but when we’re offstage, we’re friends. It’s good for everybody to take the time to sow their creative oats.” His fellow N’Sync members are already doing so: Joey Fatone recently performed in the Broadway musical Rent; JC Chasez is working on a solo album with producer Dallas Austin; Chris Kirkpatrick is developing television shows and working on an acting career, and, while continuing to raise the estimated $20 million needed to join the Russian space program, Lance Bass is busy producing movies. “I was me before N’Sync became N’Sync,” says Timberlake. “I look at my project as an opportunity to show who I really am.”