Here are two contextual ways to view Justin Timberlake's subdued "Suit & Tie," the first single from his upcoming 20/20 Experience album (his first since 2007's FutureSex/LoveSounds):
1. The first single featuring Timberlake as its headliner (and not its guest) since Obama took office, "Suit & Tie" is mellow to a fault — it's pleasant and hummable, its druggy intro is daring, but the overall effect is Chicago stepping fodder that R. Kelly would stick toward the end of an 80-minute album. Jay-Z's guest verse barely rouses it from its slumber. The song itself is a non-event, but there is a certain cockiness in that. Timberlake is reemerging as a solo artist after years of dragging his musical feet while starring in a string of movies that proved just how overblown the praise was for his turn in The Social Network. His presence is the event. The music is secondary. He has assumed the role of diva.
2. "Suit & Tie" may be unremarkable, but compared to the utter shite that Timbaland turned out for the bulk of last decade, his hands being used to make something that is pleasant feels like a legitimate feat. For every "Say Something" and "Carry Out" (both from his otherwise dreadful Shock Value II, the latter of which being his most recent collaboration with Timberlake), there have been several horrific experiments with EDM and otherwise unremarkable hip-hop tracks. He collaborated with Pitbull. He worked on Chris Cornell's widely-mocked Scream album, and Madonna on her widely mocked Hard Candy album. He made Ne-Yo sound like shit. He interpolated Billy Idol's "White Wedding" with his AutoTune set to "constipate" ("Raving is what we do best!" goes the first line of the first verse). He helmed two new Missy Elliott singles last year — "9th Inning" and "Triple Threat" — that were so bad, most people just pretended like they never happened because we love Missy and want her to be great.
Dude has been lost for a while. After his late-'90s/early-00's peak, which found him in the sparse elite of those able to single-handedly redefine what R&B sounded like (for this, his influence is comparable with James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Prince and Jam & Lewis), the future caught up with him. He petered out. Flashes of genius became the exception. That he started going downhill after Aaliyah's death in the August of 2001 is no coincidence. Remember Kiley Dean? Ms. Jade? Bubba Sparxxx? No one would fault you if you didn't, or if you did and would rather forget.
Timbaland's work with Timberlake (on both FutureSex and Timberlake's solo debut, 2002's Justified) found the producer reenergized, albeit less forward-thinking. Really, the most enduring accomplishment of those sessions was reintroducing pop to disco and house's four-on-the-floor beats via "SexyBack." In 2006, that song that predicted the imminent dance-music explosion we still haven't shaken. That one of the most intricately bonkers producers in the history of beat-making would achieve yet more influence with a pattern so basic and time-tested is one of pop's great ironies.
All of this is to say that by virtue of the fact that this recent Timbaland production is listenable and likeable, "Suit & Tie" is a relative triumph. The mighty have fallen yes, but you can't pioneer forever. The best we can hope for is to grow old gracefully.
[Image via Getty]