In my opinion, modern, American Pop music owes it’s essence to the Blues and Frank Sinatra. The Blues informed us of our very souls, the true root of American artistry, including the anger, the sex, the fight for the right to be free, but Frank gave us the template for channeling the Blues as the Pop Star. From his first of many comebacks after leaving the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey bands, Frank led the screaming ‘Bobbie Soxers’ into the beginning of youth culture and its deity, the Pop star. Innately, he carved the path all have traveled since, the scream-inducing teen idol, the foray into film, the young-adult years of innovation and the maintenance of elder statesmen. That’s four stages.
Many have tried and to varying degrees, succeeded, i.e. Elvis, The Beatles (adding group appeal) and Michael Jackson. Fame and money is a muthf$#&£ah though and even if groups give you a little support it still comes down to one or two guys who carry the load. And sometimes that load can actually kill a person. Now when I say soul, I don’t just mean it as a genre or the intangible current that gives us life. I mean both. To be real, Soul runs through Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, Duke Ellington, James Brown and Mick Jagger respectively. It’s what powers Hip Hop, Electronica, House, Dubstep and Trap. You can’t really explain it, but you know it when you hear it. Money is the Pop star’s blessing and curse. Money gives you the comfort to experiment and grow, to lock yourself on a creatively corrupt plantation, or flame out in a blaze of glorious stupidity. To survive it all with your soul intact is the key.
So far, Justin Timberlake has survived stage one and two in the Pop Idol journey. Stage three starts off like a Digital, Psychedelic Big-Bang. The 20/20 Experience is his first album in six and a half years, a virtual eternity in these times of microwave trends and disposable heroes. The country has split into extreme righties and lefties, Hip hop has gotten lost in body and soul, rock ‘n’ roll is being reborn, but far from ready. Yet in this environment, JT opens the album like he just stepped out of Dr Who’s Tardis, hands outstretched with ‘Pusha love girl,’ a sunglow Summer Of Love jam that evokes modern, boy-band Godfathers New Edition’s more sophisticated Funk and Stevie Wonder’s soul-rock Innervisions.
With one foot planted in the past and one firmly in the future comes the first single “Suit & Tie”, a collage of Big Band-era horns and ‘What’s going on’-era Marvin Gaye. But this is only the invitation. The real trip is hearing former Mouseketeer and N’sync’er flex his musical muscles.
Like a proud pledge of the secret order of Omega Psi Soul Fraternity, Justin proceeds to perform a virtual step-show through the Universe of American Soul Music. Ghosts of Curtis Mayfield jam with live guest stars like Jay-Z. Sub-genres blend, house meets dub-step, hip hop blends again with rock and funk.
Another potent component is Timbaland, the Led in the Zeppelin. Timbaland keeps the balance of heavy and soft. Adapting his Inner Cylon-funk from robotic sentinel to organic-warm-humanlike. It’s hard to see where Timberlake or Timbaland begin or end. Is it Brady or Belichick that makes them win? That’s for the scholars and nit-pickers to debate. The Magik is in the mix and the collaboration. ‘Strawberry Bubblegum’ is a masterpiece with its blend of soul and hip hop. Old and new burst through and I am fifteen again falling in love with a girl from around the way.
In the weeks to come many will have their say about this album, and note I keep saying ALBUM because this is not a collection of singles–this is an experience. You sit with wine or a bliz or whatever and you listen. This will scare some of his fans looking for immediate satisfaction. This will also put the the new crop of ‘Soul’ men on notice. The white boy from Memphis is coming correct. Surely it’s a conspiracy to steal “our” soul music, but before you go burning effigies of Elvis, remember this: J Dilla passed away, D’Angelo has yet to drop is own Soul-Rock ‘Smile.’ Indeed, there has been a void.
But this is a new time and a new millennium and we have been on cultural lock-down since 9/11.
Those planes took our freedom and our souls. Sit and listen and heal. What the world needs now is a new Frank Sinatra.
Get up, JT.