Justin Timberlake: "Suit & Tie (f/ Jay-Z)"
from The 20/20 Experience (Jive; 2013)
By Conrad Amenta | 16 January 2013
If we treat Michael Jackson as JT’s spiritual predecessor—as I suppose we should for anyone who ventures to sing falsetto over a neo-disco track—then there are worse things than Timberlake’s long-gestating new song “Suit & Tie” being kind of boring. Jackson’s own Dangerous (1991) came after a few years of the artist being off the radar, and was heralded by “Black or White,” a simpering entreaty to binary racial harmony whose video infamously featured Macaulay Culkin and a four-minute epilogue in which Jackson animorphs from panther and back and smashes up a car painted with racist slogans with a garbage can. We can be thankful, I guess, that Timberlake—a cultural phenom several orders lower than Jackson, though still much admired—didn’t overcompensate for his absence from the music scene by making a facile “political” song. Kudos to Timberlake for realizing that politics isn’t the vehicle for a comeback; pop music is.
Though one thinks there could have been something between “Black or White” and “Suit & Tie,” which is a song about looking good, dancing, how JT likes that dress on you, and how you should call him daddy (gross). It reaffirms all of the comfortable sex-and-romance clichés in which Timberlake, despite his reputation as a somewhat forward-thinking pop writer and singer, has trucked his whole career. Timbaland, himself not long past an expiry date, returns to provide mid-tempo production and a snare drum that sounds like a submarine’s sonar. It’s not bad, really; you’ve just heard it all before, and about ten years ago.
When I think of other pop stars currently inhabiting the strata of exposure and critical attention that Timberlake did six years ago, the gap between his thinking and theirs becomes much more evident. Consider Beyonce’s “Countdown,” which is like an exhausting virtuoso ride through every skill in B’s arsenal, or Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass,” which is basically insane and ridiculous and fast-tracked her to washed-up American Idol-judge status in record time. Songs like these embody the claustrophobic, information-heavy sensations of aggregator surfing, the surplus of ill-formed ideas and concepts to which we have access. They’re the confused face of a culture looking itself in the mirror. Timberlake, and Timbaland, sound too methodical, too careful by contrast. “Here is a song for your consideration,” they may as well be saying, and before their ponderously slow introduction is over you’ve moved along.
When JT’s record drops it’ll undoubtedly be a hit, though simply because it will find itself at the center of an inexorable brand machine that will include shoving the single down each of our throats for weeks on end, internet street teams, billboards in our eyeball space, possibly a multivitamin. Millions will be spent to recoup millions spent, and it’ll work because it always does. But take that feeling when you first listen to “Suit & Tie,” that “meh, maybe I have to listen to it again” feeling, and remember it. It’s a boring song, out of step with pop music and its audience. No amount of finessing will change that.