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A Tale of Two Justins: Bieber’s Believe vs. Timberlake’s Justified

With Bieber’s first adult album in stores, we revisit Timberlake’s similar debut.

Justin BieberYou’ll be hard-pressed to find any coverage of Justin Bieber’s Believe — the wunderkind’s first “adult” album, being released into the universe as we speak — that won’t mention, at least in passing, Justin Timberlake and his 2002 “adult” debut, Justified. The two records aren’t perfectly analogous, as you’ll see, but they’re close enough — a pair of transition albums from a pair of teen sensations. The comparison is inevitable. And so with everyone throwing the Justin-Justin thing out there anyway, we figured a head-to-head breakdown was worth our while.

It’s only appropriate that Bieber is now looked upon to take over the vacated mantle of America’s no. 1 pop star in part because Timberlake willingly ceded it (so he could pal around Studio 8H and get naked with Mila Kunis). Which means this isn’t as much about the contest between the two as it is about their overlap and their cleavages, and what those might bode for the rest of JB’s career. (Holy crap, I just used the word “cleavages” while in no way talking about boobs.) But since it’s more fun to metamorphose the two albums into a fake brawl, let’s intro it that way: OK, on to the breakdown! Believe! Justified! [Boxing bell ding]! [Boxing bell ding]! [Boxing bell ding]!

The Background

Bieber’s and Timberlake’s early rises differ superficially, as the former was on his own from day one while the latter was warmly ensconced in the all-dancing, all-singing pop combo ‘N Sync. But, with all due respect to Chris Kirkpatrick, Timberlake was the lead face from day one. Meaning, just like Bieber, he was saddled with the prospect of future superstardom by his preteens. Bieber was discovered on YouTube by his manager, Scooter Braun, when he was 13; Timberlake was 14 when ‘N Sync kicked off, but he’d already logged plentiful professional experience as a cast member on The Mickey Mouse Club. The big divide, then, comes at the age in which each of our dudes attempted The Leap. Timberlake was 21 when Justified was released, with four ‘N Sync albums under his belt, including 2001’s relatively more mature Celebrity. (Don’t front, “Pop” is a jam). Bieber is 18, with two full-lengths, an acoustic album, and an EP behind him. By the way, both Bieber and Timberlake had released Christmas albums by this point, which, of course they did.

If you’ll allow me to opine slightly, that three-year gap is huge: Bieber a youthful-looking 18; Timberlake a mature-seeming 21. As I recall, Timberlake’s introduction as Mature Adult Pop Star came at the VMAs, when he debuted his first single, “Like I Love You,” alongside Clipse.

It’s a small thing, but when Timberlake croons “I just love your brain” while simulating what could be perceived as a gentleman pushing a lady’s head downward — well, that was certainly something new from the former noted virgin! That level of explicitness from Bieber is yet to be seen. For comparison, here’s what I’d call the Bieb’s first Mature Adult Pop Star moment, the video for Believe’s lead single, “Boyfriend”:

Tellingly, the original concept for the video — wherein Bieber would be “groped by several female hands, dancing in front of a large white spotlight a la Michael Jackson, posing menacingly in front of a fire and floating underwater” — was scrapped, possibly because it was deemed too Mature Adult Pop Star. Also, while you could quibble with any number of things about Timberlake’s appearance or his persona in the Justified era, you couldn’t really deny that the dude could both dance and sing his ass off. I’m not sure Bieber has gotten to that point. His current nationally televised performances range from “encouraging” to “Oh dear God he can’t hit these notes maybe we should have castrato’d the kid.”

The Albums

OK, into the meat. We’re going to need sub-categories, and lots of ‘em!

Miscellaneous: A few parallels here that could well be construed as coincidental, if you so choose. The cover art for both Justified and Believe feature the young men’s faces as they stare, oh so mysteriously, just a touch out of the frame. (Timberlake is apparently doing so while on the moon, though). Also, both album titles reference the artists’ first names: Justified directly, Believe via the term “Belieber,” the accepted nomenclature for a Bieber obsessive. And both gentlemen underwent hair transformations before the release of their potential adult crossovers. Timberlake’s was more subtle, as his curls weren’t exactly a trademark, and so shearing them off went largely unheralded. Bieber’s famous bowl-cut-swoop was chopped off early last year, without too much fanfare. It’s the smartest move his team has made: The hair was a huge part of the young Bieber identity, so downplaying Samson-esque implications as much as possible let Bieber slide into adulthood with a totally brand new ridiculous haircut.

The Production: Justified was largely produced by The Neptunes and Timbaland, which was just dumb obvious, as the two were the hottest things on the planet at the time. In contrast, Bieber split up production duties on Believe between younger guys like Hit-Boy and Diplo, and vets like Max Martin and Rodney Jerkins. It’s possible JB chose the potpourri approach because, right now, there isn’t as obvious a choice as early-aughts Neptunes/Timbaland, who provided Timberlake with both major cool points and a safety net with their proven hit record. (But, like, if Kanye had been down to do the whole thing, that would have probably been something to consider?) It you want a more nefarious theory, though, maybe Scooter Braun — who has done a masterful job Svengali’ing Biebs so far — didn’t want to let a more powerful force, in the form of a charismatic superstar producer who may yet steal Justin away, into the inner circle? (Sorry, I just read Mao: The Unknown Story so I’m maybe seeing conspiracies everywhere).

The Sound: The big questions here are: How did Justified and Believe, respectively, move away from their creators’ earlier teen sound? And how closely did that new sound hew to the mainstream sound of the day? Justified certainly found Timberlake leaving the big bright primary-color pop of ‘N Sync for dirtier, darker, weirder places. But it’s not as if he dropped all pretenses at Top 40 cuddliness: From the disco-MJ-lite of “Rock Your Body” to the cheesy call-and-response of “Senorita,” Timberlake doled out plenty of fluffiness. At least in part, Justified felt more grown-up because it was a Timberlake solo album, and therefore explicitly not ‘N Sync. In that sense, Timberlake had a built-in advantage over Bieber: publicly dropping your childhood buddies is a very effective bit of brand-crafting that isn’t available to JB.

That said: “Cry Me a River.” “Cry Me a River.” If you had told me that Timberlake would ultimately win our hearts and minds with a song (and a video — can’t forget the video) plumbing the depths of his pain from that time Britney Spears cheated on him with choreographer Wade Robson, I would have said, “You lie, sir.” The Timberlake-Spears axis was a thoroughly goofy thing — no one who lived through that time will ever forget the matching denim — and for a display of actual human emotion to come of it was deeply surprising. But sorry. That’s exactly what happened.

“Cry Me a River” was a gorgeous, slippery thing: “youdon’thave tosay [pause] whatyoudid / I alreadyknow / I found out from [pause] hiiiim.” That shit was real. Now let’s let someone smarter freak out over the track’s construction. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross:

There are at least seven layers of simultaneous activity in the song: it’s as if Timbaland wanted to see how much he could pile on without creating atonality. First there is an arpeggiated keyboard figure, followed by male voices singing a bit of Gregorian-style chant. Next comes a steady, sombre pattern that sounds a little like the minor-key vamp in Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.” Below it are four bass notes, recurring in chacona style. Now the angelic Timberlake enters, together with a more nasty-minded rhythm section, a vaguely Indian-sounding synthesized string orchestra, and, finally, sped-up versions of all the above.

In sum, “Cry Me a River” may be the most polyphonically complex teenybopper ballad in history.

Again, appropriately enough, Bieber has his own version of “Cry Me a River,” a song implicitly dealing with a much-publicized personal issue. It’s a bonus track on Believe called “Maria,” which nods to the paternity lawsuit brought forth, and later dropped, by a woman named Mariah Yeater (yes, that makes it more in line with “Billie Jean,” but that is out of the bounds of this conversation). Does “Maria” hit as hard as “Cry Me a River”? I know it’s early, but I’m going to say no.

Timberlake was fortunate to have it both ways on Justified, in that he sounded both progressive and in step with the times. Bieber, as the New York Times explained, has it harder: “His first full-length album, My World 2.0, was R&B at its core, only occasionally deviating from theme. But the rise of pummeling dance music as a mainstream aesthetic leaves Mr. Bieber, whose voice is sweet but not rickety, in an awkward position. Suddenly he has to find a way to mesh his delicate voice with music that’s designed for subwoofers and Red Bull cravers.”

Lyrical Content: The Times, again: “But there are several places on this album where Mr. Bieber strips away that artifice and leans on his instincts, spotlighting his best self … These are this album’s high points.” I gotta agree: Bieber is most palatable on Believe when he’s just dropping regular, old-school, posi-minded Bieber-y ballads. Lyrics like “They say we’re too young for love / but I’m / catching feelings” and “there’s no way that I could share you / that would break my heart to pieces” come fast and heavy, but that’s his bread and butter. That shit works. Overall, Bieber stays away from any straight sexin’: Even when the swaggering Nicki Minaj and Big Sean show up, Justin’s talking lifelong devotion and lady-pampering and such. And thank god. The ick potential would have been off the charts; he just can’t pull it off, not yet. In contrast, there’s Timberlake’s “Like I Love You,” a song that — as far as I understand it, at least — is about how good JT is at sex.

Speaking of hip-hop: Both Timberlake and Bieber embrace the genre on their adult debuts. JB’s been doing it for a while now, even developing a hip-hop alter ego called Shawty Mane and dropping “freestyles” in radio interviews. But (and this depends on how you classify the talking bits on “Boyfriend”) Biebs doesn’t actually rap on Believe — another wise choice. For the most part the rap verses present are of the don’t-bring-anything-to-the-table-don’t-take-anything-off variety with one exception: “Right Here,” featuring Drake. It’s more an R&B duet, anyway, and therefore an organically effective pairing. By the way, if Bieber eventually grows up to become a less revealing, less emo version of Singing Drake, that’s something we’d all be pretty OK with, right?

Meanwhile, other than the phoned-in but still rad Pusha and Malice verses on “Like I Love You” (“Take a few shots, let it burn in ya chest … funny how a few words turn into sex”), Justified’s other rap cameo is … erstwhile Timbaland protégé Bubba Sparxxx! Ohohoh — bet you’d hoped we’d forgotten all about that, Justin?

Lastly: In the lesser realm of motivational ballads, Bieber — who’s been mining the field for a while now — has it sewn up. On the title track — which is sung in the second person and is addressed either to a representative Bieber fan or Jesus, whatever you prefer — Bieber tells us to “believe, believe, believe,” and goddamn it, I believe. Justified has “Let’s Take a Ride,” where Timberlake sketches out a generic bummer situation — “got laid off at your job today / you’ve been working at this place for years” — and then gives the bummer recipient the melodic balm to soothe. It just doesn’t seem like he means it.

The Future

Justified was a smash: a string of hit singles, multiple Grammy wins, more than 7 million copies sold. And, sigh, we all know what happened next. Timberlake, who would never return to ‘N Sync, followed up Justified with 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, which actually lived up to the promise of the first half of its dumb name, and blew everyone’s minds. And then he just kind of stopped. I happen to think The Social Network wouldn’t have been the same without JT. I happen to think Friends With Benefits was totally charming. And I still wish this guy would get back in the goddamn studio.

Which, again, brings us back to Bieber. Can the younger Justin meet his destiny and become the dominant male pop star America so badly needs? The spot is his for the taking. Bieber supposedly sold out every date on his Believe tour in an hour and, by the current standards of the compressed music industry, Believe is set to be a smash. But that’s not the question. The question is whether Believe will win over the — sorry, sorry — non-Beliebers. And I’m guessing the answer is no. Believe, rightfully, plays it safe. But that means no out-of-the-box undeniable brilliant smash hit single, è la “Cry Me a River.” And it means a few more years, at the most, of more of the same. He’s got plenty of time to get there. Let’s wait those couple of years and see what Bieber’s made of.