Every man has the ability to pull off a falsetto, which is a manipulation of the vocal cords to expand your vocal range.
But in this era, it is not considered "masculine" to use this part of the human voice. This is a real shame, because some of the best male singers in history (Freddie Mercury, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, etc) were known for their high soaring vocals.
In 2002, there were four major questions before Justin Timberlake dropped his first solo album, Justified.
- Could he make it without his N'Sync buddies?
- Could he succeed in his attempts to create true R&B grooves?
- Could he nail almost an entire album using the airy falsetto sound, a technique he rarely attempted with N'Sync?
That last one is a half joke, but was a real concern to some people at the time, believe it or not. Ahh, good ole' 2002.
I'll briefly review my favorite Justified tracks, but I will first go on record as saying that I've always had a soft spot for this album.
The reason? It sounds like the 2002 version of Michael Jackson's classic Off The Wall album. A 21 year-old Michael Jackson released Off The Wall in August 1979 and it generated several hits including “Don't Stop Til You Get Enough,” “Rock With You,” “Off The Wall” “Girlfriend” and “She's Out Of My Life.”
Just as Justin was taking big risks with Justified, Michael was doing the same thing when he recorded Off The Wall. He was experimenting with his songwriting and attempting to create his own sound, one that was different from the sound he had with his brothers, The Jacksons. All of the Michael Jackson trademarks we eventually came to know and love (the hiccups, the falsetto, the growling) all came to the forefront on this album.
Workin' Day And Night
Despite this, Off The Wall was Michael's first adult solo album and his teenage solo albums at Motown didn't do well. A lot was on the line here. Looking back at it now, I can't see Off The Wall being a failure. But back then, it looked like somewhat of a possibility, especially considering Michael's one attempt at becoming a movie star failing with The Wiz just two years prior.
The influence of Michael's sound is all over Justin's album. The lush grooves and melodies of the songs strongly recall the sound of the Off The Wall album, and, just as Michael did, Justin developed a habit of sliding his voice into a crying falsetto over the instrumentation.
As I alluded to earlier, falsetto is considered a real crack in masculinity. But the good news is that a lot of women are attracted to that form of vulnerability, which is why Smokey Robinson and Prince could seduce basically any woman they wanted. A good falsetto vocal could express a wail of hurt that a baritone never could. It's amazing how such a soft and quiet voice generates real power with women and record sales.
Michael used the falsetto sometimes throughout his career, (Don't Stop Til You Get Enough, Butterflies) but Justin took this one part of Michael's sound and expanded on it, using it twice as much as his moonwalking idol.
Michael used to layer his background vocals, which resulted in him sounding like a small choir of twin brothers, some with higher and lower voices. Throughout the album, Justin delicately stacks his background harmonies the same way.
Quincy used his "Killer Q Posse" to record Off The Wall. The Killer Q' Posse consisted of John "JR" Robinson on drums, Louis Johnson on Bass, Greg Phillinganes on keyboards, Bruce Swedien as the engineer and Rod Temperton as the head songwriter. The Neptunes used the digital technology available to them to record the Justified songs, but they still played real instruments enough to give the songs an authentic funk feel that I'll elaborate more on later.
Justin and the Neptunes had been listening to Off The Wall and Thriller very carefully. They understood the Michael Jackson sound of those albums.
I also have to point out that the Neptunes originally wrote some of these songs with Michael Jackson in mind, but his then-manager rejected them, so the songs instead were recorded by Justin and Usher.
A brilliant hybrid of latin and funk soul, punctuated by Pharell Williams' live drumming and the use of a live trombone. The melodic melody to the bridge of the song (“When I look into your eyes, I see something that money can't buy...) is a real play out of the Rod Temperton songbook. The falsetto harmonies during that part strongly recall Michael Jackson.
Like I Love You:
The album's lead single. It's a standard catchy pop tune. Again, Pharrell adds some real funk to the track by playing live drums, and the song is driven by guitar. The grooves of the song may stay with you when it's over. But again, it's those Michael Jackson influences that make it stand out. Justin explodes into his “Michael Jackson” voice during the bridge. “I JUST WANNA LOVE YA, BABEH!!" Justin also incorporated Jackson-esque harmonies as his background vocals.
While Justin showed the Jackson influences in spurts on the previous songs I mentioned, he went all-out on this one. I could so easily hear Michael singing this song. “Remember girl when I was your maaan.” The Michael-Meter is exploding here. There's nothing bad I can say about this track. It's one of my favorites.
Cry Me A River:
The Neptunes produced the majority of the tracks on the album, but it was Timbaland who was behind the boards for Justified's biggest hit, “Cry Me A River.” It's a dark track, haunted by Timbaland's thumping beat and beat-boxing. Legend has it that this song was written about a certain lady named Britney Spears. Certainly, this song was a hint of what was to come on Justin's future albums, as he and Timbland would collaborate almost frequently and this overall sound became more of a focus.
Rock Your Body
This was one of the Neptunes-penned songs that was supposed to go to Michael Jackson for his “Invincible” album but instead wound up here. It's another song that strongly mimics the post-disco sound and melodies of an Off The Wall era song. I initially liked it, but it got overplayed. However, here is a great recording of Pharrell teaching Justin the bridge of the song.
This is my personal favorite on the album. The Neptunes took BIG inspiration from Stevie Wonder here. This groove and overall song structure is 110% 1970s' era Stevie Wonder. What makes it even BETTER is that Justin vocally borrowed from Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson. Justin's smokey tenor rides the grooves during the versus but eventually gives way to the wailing falsetto as the song grows. To me, the song is a nice cross between “I Can't Help It” from Off The Wall and Stevie Wonder's “Blame It On The Sun.”
Also, the demo for the song is available online. It was originally sung by an artist named Latrelle. Justin was able to manipulate his falsetto to match her note for note, including the background vocals. Impressive that he was able to emulate the demo for a female singer.
Still On My Brain:
Another favorite of mine. Justin rides the song in a quiet falsetto but lets loose at the end. He sounds a lot like Michael, (especially the "crying" at the end) but I'm used to it by now. It's a great ballad...very relaxing to listen to.
(And She Said), Take Me Now:
This one had to grow on me. It's the shameless Michael Jackson impression that finally won me over. In fact, this may be the song where he basically overdosed on his Michael pill. Speaking of Michael Jackson, his sister Janet provides some whispery vocals on this song. Like I said regarding Cry Me A River, you can hear glimpses of JT's future releases on these Timbaland-produced tracks. Given it's electric funk sound, this song would not sound out of place on JT's follow-up album, Future Love/Sex Sounds.
“Let's Take A Ride.”
I like this one a lot, too. It's melodic and memorable. It's great riding music for the car.
Off The Record
Justified is not one of my favorite albums of all time, but it brought back a sound I thought I'd never hear again.
No one will take the King of Pop's throne, but Justin did a decent good job reminding me of Michael's earlier adult sound; a sound that faded and became mechanical as the years went by.