I’ve been known to have many ridiculous thoughts, but this one actually seems kind of logical, so here it goes: Justin Timberlake is to his generation of male pop stars what Michael Jordan was to his generation of basketball players.
Take a look at their career arcs. Timberlake’s Mickey Mouse Club years are the equivalent of Jordan’s years playing college ball at the University of North Carolina. Both were precocious amateurs learning how to succeed in their respective fields, while a part of heralded organizations. Very talented peers surrounded them both, as Timberlake worked with eventual stars Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, JC Chasez and Ryan Gosling, and Jordan played with future NBA starters Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty and James Worthy.
Timberlake’s ’N Sync years are comparable to Jordan’s time with the Chicago Bulls before he won his first title. While ’N Sync was obviously hugely popular and successful because of their members’ talent, led by Timberlake, they were just a young boy band that had room for improvement. The band wasn’t in a position to be considered serious, “adult” pop music. Jordan and his Bulls were also up-and-coming and very talented, but due to lack of experience, they were unable to win an NBA title during the 1980s. At these points, it was pretty obvious to many that Jordan/Timberlake had the talent to take over basketball/pop music, and the question was simply when all of the pieces would fall into place and allow them to reign supreme.
In 1991, Jordan’s Bulls beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. He then followed this up with two more championships in the next two seasons. In 2002, Justin Timberlake released his solo debut, Justified. He followed this up with FutureSex/LoveSounds in 2006. After his first three-peat, Jordan was pretty much unquestionably the best basketball player in the world at the time. After his incredible first two solo albums, Timberlake was pretty much unquestionably the biggest male pop star in the world at the time.
Following the three-peat and the tragic death of his father, Jordan left the NBA and went and played minor league baseball for the Birmingham Barons, an affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. After a rough start, Jordan turned out to be a decent minor league baseball player, and occasionally flashed the potential that he could maybe one day be a good player in Major League Baseball. Following the huge success of his first two albums, Timberlake stopped making music and began acting. Timberlake’s first few acting jobs were struggles, but he found moderate success in a supporting role in The Social Network, and occasionally flashed the potential that he could maybe one day be a good leading actor.
Because of Jordan’s premature departure from the NBA, an up-and-coming star was thrust into the spotlight too soon and, while at times displaying the ability to dominate on the court, came up short, as Shaquille O’Neal finished second in MVP voting, but his Orlando Magic lost in the 1995 NBA Finals to the Houston Rockets because Shaq was simply too young and not ready to take over the league. Because of Timberlake’s premature departure from music, an up-and-coming star was thrust into the spotlight too soon and, while at times displaying the ability to dominate male pop music, came up short, as Justin Bieber’s first “mature” album, Believe, had a few great songs but was ultimately somewhat disappointing because Bieber was too young and not ready to fully jump into adult-themed music.
Jordan’s potentially biggest, most talented rival, Len Bias, suddenly died from a cocaine overdose on June 19, 1986 at the age of 22, two days after being drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics. Timberlake’s potentially biggest, most talented rival, Kurt Cobain, suddenly died of an apparent suicide on April 8, 1994 at the age of 27, as a result of his heroin addiction. (This one might be a reach, but if Cobain doesn’t die he probably becomes the male face of music in the late 90s/early 2000s, right?)
We know what happened with Jordan: he came back to the Bulls, pulled off another three-peat, retired again, and then finished off his career with the Washington Wizards. Jordan is now considered the greatest basketball player of all time, and it’s not really close. Justin Timberlake’s triumphant return to music, The 20/20 Experience, and his subsequent blockbuster tour made him seem poised to emulate Jordan’s path once again, and the announcement that he’d release The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 in the fall kept the hype building.
Unfortunately, 2 of 2 isn’t nearly up to the high standards of part one. While his first release of 2013 was full of instant classics like “Suit & Tie”, “Mirrors”, and “Tunnel Vision”, Part 2 of 2 doesn’t seem to have any truly impactful songs, as singles “Take Back the Night” and “TKO” are decent but bland in comparison. Both albums are full of extended jams reminiscent of the days of Curtis Mayfield, but 2 of 2 feels much more droning than part one, and the repetitiveness starts to become mind-numbing. And while the first album only had one bad song, the Ricky Martin-esque “Let The Groove Get In”, at least half of the tracks on 2 of 2 are pretty weak, with the gross “Murder” and the Lady Gaga-sounding vampire ode “True Blood” being especially egregious.
I was hopeful that JT would keep following in MJ’s Jumpman-imprinted footsteps, but it looks like Timberlake is aging faster than we thought he would. Timberlake’s whole image is that of a modern throwback, staying with the times while tipping his fedora to the legends of the past. But on 2 of 2, Timberlake comes off like Jordan did in his last days with the Wizards; he still roughly appears like the same guy who was once a dominant force, but there’s just something missing now, something that time has taken from him.
After his gigantic return to music in 2013, it is unlikely that Timberlake will put out another album for at least a couple years. By that point, he’ll be creeping towards age 40 and probably seem like even more of a relic, fondly regarded for his past greatness but simply not up to speed with the pop stars hitting their primes. Timberlake may still have a few more hits in him, like when Jordan scored 51 points in a game for the Wizards at age 38, becoming the oldest player in NBA history to score 50-plus points in a game, but time will overcome him soon enough. While it’s now unlikely that Timberlake will match Jordan and be remembered as the best ever in his field, his legacy will still be incredibly impressive. Now let’s just hope he doesn’t buy his hometown NBA team and run it into the ground like Jordan has with the Charlotte Bobcats.
(Suddenly remembers that JT became a minority owner of the Memphis Grizzlies last year.) Damn. Sorry, Memphis.