Is Justin Timberlake the Best Male Pop Star of the 21st Century?
With Justin Timberlake set to release his fifth album — or fifth, depending on how you gauge The 20/20 Experience — this Friday (Feb. 2), two days before he takes the stage at Super Bowl LII, it’s a good time to size up JT’s overall musical resume and ask: Is he the best male pop star of the 21st century?
Billboard staffers exchanged their thoughts on the subject, which you can read below.
Andrew Unterberger: OK, so first off — I wanted to kinda lay out the 21st century male pop stars who I feel like have the chips to buy in at this table. The combination of skills, longevity, crossover appeal, hits, and general iconicity, if that’s even a word. And I’d say that taking all of that into account, these are the eight guys we’re talking about (in alphabetical order so not to be prejudicial):
Of course, some of these are rappers whose status as pop stars could be considered arguable — lord knows we had plenty of arguments about this when figuring out eligibility for our Best Deep Cuts by 21st Century Pop Stars list a couple months ago — but who I feel spent enough time at pop music’s center to at least be in the discussion. You can decide for yourself whether or not you agree.
Anyway, of those eight, I’m gonna go with the guy who maybe has the least contemporary clout: Usher Raymond IV. We forget about Usher a lot when discussing the greats of this century — but why? Aside from JT and Eminem, he’s the only guy on that list that’s been a star since century’s beginning, and at the time, his production was absolutely unfuckwithable. He began the century with two near-masterpieces in 8701 and Confessions (which sold a combined 14 million copies and spun off six Hot 100 number one hits) and though he’s been less consistent since, he’s still good for at least one absolute knockout single every couple years — and for my money, 2012’s Looking 4 Myself is still his best album, front to back.
And the thing that really gives him over the edge over Timberlake for me is that he’s allowed us to see him at his absolute messiest. He’s undergone just about every public drama a celebrity can — romantic, familial, legal — and he’s put all of it into his music, too, which can be uncomfortably personal at times (“Papers,” anyone)? Ross and I were talking the other day about how JT doesn’t have a song as good as “Climax,” but more importantly, he’s never even attempted one: Justin’s too cool, too composed for that, which is fine, but not necessarily what I want from my pop stars. Throw in Usher’s formidable singing and dancing abilities, and his ease of evolution from the JD era in pop to the Neptunes era to Lil Jon to David Guetta to Diplo, and he’s my guy for this, easy.
Chris Payne: Dang, I think you did a good job of arguing one of the tougher sells on that list. When you initially floated this idea, I was thinking how Usher’s near-20-year run of Hot 100 hits (circa 1997 – circa 2014) is so damn impressive and underrated. But I just can’t give this title to someone who it seems has fallen off, critically and commercially, in the current moment and just isn’t coming back. The only thing making us remember Hard II Love is that terrible album art.
When I close my eyes and think of what male pop star has defined culture since I graduated middle school, I think of Drake. Even through the nine years before “Best I Ever Had,” it still feels like he was…. there. The texture and sentiment of his music, the token Drake-ness, was living and breathing in popular music for a while. He just embodied it as one person, and then took it in many different directions: the rapping, the singing, pulling off both at the same time so well that it became standard, and also re-defining the norms rappers are held to through his beefs and his vulnerability. Simply counting MCs as pop stars feels so much more natural now since he arrived. Kanye laid a lot of the groundwork for this and I personally love him a lot more, but right now this title is Drake’s.
Ross Scarano: I’m with Major Payne. One way I think about stardom is through novelty and influence. Ultimately, Justin Timberlake is a student of Michael Jackson. It wouldn’t be correct to describe someone as following in the footsteps of Justin Timberlake, since he’s just working from Jackson’s playbook. (Allegedly, some of the Neptunes’ beats for Justified were made for MJ.) Drake, on the other hand, has plenty of sons, and though Young Angel wouldn’t have been able to break without the work of Kanye West and Kid Cudi, when I look at the contemporary pop landscape, it’s not correct to describe the Drake clones as actually being Kanye (or Cudi) clones. What Drake and 40 created continues to impact the game on a massive level, even as Drake himself continues to absorb different sounds and styles (and accents).
That said, I can see making the argument for Kanye, who is my ultimate 21st century star. Except that he’s too mercurial and capricious for anyone to follow him well these days. The other weekend I listened to Yeezus three or four times, thinking about this tweet from the critic Ezra Marcus while I did so. Kanye works on a conceptual level in a way that’s hard to crib from. But even that isn’t enough to totally capture Kanye’s singularity. Makes more sense to produce broken Auto-Tuned cries and wails for minutes at a time rather than use something as fragile as language to pin down Mr. West.