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Justin Timberlake’s Secret Ingredients

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Outside of rap, there aren’t a lot of artists with the XY chromosomes, staying power and tunes to be anointed as the definitive male pop star of 2014. Hitting the AT&T Center this Tuesday, Justin Timberlake may be the only non-rap dude with a rightful claim to the throne. But the reasons for his fame may not be what you’d expect.

Overcoming Bad Output

For each gift in Timberlake’s staggering library, there’s a present worth returning for store credit. And not just the awkward fedoras, frosted tips and all-denim-everything suits.

Aside from The Social Network and Inside Llewyn Davis, Timberlake’s flicks tend to populate the $5 Walmart bin and the deep recesses of Netflix rom-com recommendations. The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2 was an unnecessary reprise, a loose collection of singles with flabby filler tracks. Revisiting the music of NSYNC is like entering a smarmy housing development: a few supporting beams try to hold up shoddy work against the march of time.

But there’s something about Timberlake’s charisma as a performer that allows him to brush off the meh material he’s put out. Catch the soigné dude on Saturday Night Live or on his recurring visits to Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show and you’ll see raw confidence on the camera, with timing and natural poise even as he’s breaking in a skit. It’s this magnetic vibe that has allowed JT to plead the fifth on his subpar stuff, while tagging the best to the Timberlake brand.

Black Musicians

If you’re familiar with the history of pop music, you probably saw this one coming. In an attempt to transition out of the bubblegum tunes of NSYNC, Timberlake picked up Timbaland and the Neptunes to produce his R&B-inflected debut, Justified. Since then, JT has filled the production room with black artists to appeal to the hilariously outdated “urban contemporary” market share.

After the release of The 20/20 Experience, Timberlake received some blogosphere flack for appropriating black music, for picking up black culture when it’s helpful to his career and dropping it when whiteness is favored. Jamilah King of Colorlines stated that Timberlake’s “whiteness acts as both an entryway into a popular culture and a buffer against its criticisms,” allowing JT to escape the Nipplegate controversy while Janet Jackson’s career stagnated.

Given Timberlake’s rare talent, his dexterity on the keys and the production credits he’s picked up along the way, it’s a stretch to say he’s on the appropriation level of an Elvis or Miley. Still, without the black musicians that have helped carve out his career path, JT could have quickly faded from cultural memory.

Chord Changes

In radio pop, songwriters use major and minor chord changes in their songs like casual chefs use buffalo sauce on chicken: apply liberally and the result will be pretty good. But on the first installment of The 20/20 Experience, Timberlake and producers Timbaland and J-Roc cook with a little more finesse, introducing lush chord changes to tasteful effect.

On “Pusher Love Girl,” the album opens with some tight changes and syncopated melody in the chorus. The melody (“you’re my drug / hook me up”) slides down at the same interval, a ninth chord worked around to fit the melody. It’s an infectious move, naturally catchy in its symmetry. It’s also quite smart, as the melody teases out the notes of the next chord change, which land on each line’s final syllable.

Just as impressively, Timberlake and company arrange the notes in these chords among JT’s voice, horn lines and fat bass. Situating the chord like so hides their work in a subtle way, affecting the casual listener without him knowing why it sounds so sweet.

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