His first new single in years is not a statement-making, globe-conquering comeback, but a return to R Kelly-inspired R&B
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The music industry in January is a bit like the weather: bleak, barren and with strong blasts of Emeli Sandé. It’s a quiet time for new music, with songs that have been around for months rebounding up the charts as people spend their iTunes giftcards. And yet the last 10 days have seen plenty of music-related excitement. First there was the return of Suede, before David Bowie casually unveiled his first new song in 10 years the following day. Two days later Beyoncé, also due to release her fifth solo album in the next few months, announced there would be a new Destiny’s Child song, Nuclear. By this point Twitter was in fits.
Prior to the Destiny’s Child announcement, however, Justin Timberlake – full-time actor, part-time scatter cushion doyen and possibly the greatest male entertainer since Michael Jackson – tweeted: “Thursday, January 10th, 2013 at 9:01 am PST.” While there was initial speculation that this was just something to do with MySpace (Timberlake is a stakeholder in the ailing social network), the tweet fuelled earlier rumours about his imminent return after a claim last year by producer Jim Bean that he was working on an unspecified “Justin Timberlake project” (it was then hastily denied). In the end Thursday’s activity was little more than an internet tease, with a video showing the singer walking through a recording studio as a voiceover defends his six-year absence from music. At the end he turns to the camera, pops on his headphones and says, “I’m ready.”
But ready for what? Well, if Suit & Tie is anything to go by, he’s pretty much ready to bring R Kelly/Robin Thicke, mid-noughties R&B back. After a strange intro of slowed down synths and slightly out of time drum claps, a distorted Timberlake growls “awoo” before he and Timbaland intone “I be on my suit and tie shit” as what sounds like a harp finesses in the background. After a brief pause the song then settles into a rolling, laidback groove – all smooth falsetto harmonies, finger clicks and old-school horn blasts. Halfway through he asks “get out your seat Hov” and Jay-Z delivers a verse about various high-end fashion labels (the song is about dressing up for a lady friend) over a big lolloping Timbaland beat, before it returns once again to its comfort zone. And perhaps “comfortable” is the key word here – Suit & Tie feels like the work of someone luxuriating in the fact they’re making music again and not someone desperate to redefine pop in the face of its recent club-related slump. It’s not a sound-redefining, statement-making, globe-conquering comeback single like SexyBack had been, but more of a midway point between Justified’s Senorita and FutureSex/LoveSounds’ Summer Love. What this means for his forthcoming album, The 20/20 Experience, we’ll just have to wait and see, but for now Suit & Tie feels like a pop star sashaying his way back on to the stage when everyone was hoping he’d explode out from it.