I have a confession to make: I really like Justin Timberlake.
And I really like The 20/20 Experience, which dropped Tuesday and is on pace to move 800,000 copies this week, according to Billboard.
As an aging backpacker just starting to lighten up to Top 40, I wasn’t able to say this kind of thing very recently. My turning point came last summer hanging out with a group of friends at a hipstery bar. It was near closing time but they were the political sort so we were talking about The World’s Important Things—until LoveStoned from Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds came on. I lit up and I thought I was the only one, but then I noticed one of my homies singing along. “I really like Justin,” I admitted with a shrug. “I do too,” she said. As we laughed about it, I felt the same exhilaration I once did when bonding with socially conscious health nuts who made late-night trips to McDonald’s. We knew we weren’t supposed to like him but we did like his music. And that, for reasons both absurd and obvious, was a problem.
My ambivalence toward Justin is, to a large degree, a matter of aesthetics. But it’s also rooted in a very real anxiety about White artists “borrowing” Black music and style then taking a break when it becomes inconvenient. Yes, Timberlake has rightfully earned his place among modern pop music legends, but he also embodies the historical mistrust that exists between White performers and Black listeners that dates at least as far back as Elvis Presley’s 1950s foray into what was then called “race music.“