It wasn’t all that long ago—really, really, not all that long ago—that it looked like Justin Timberlake never (as in, not ever) making new music again seemed like a real possibility. As a matter of fact, as recently as 33 days ago—the day before JT teased the release of his new single “Suit & Tie”—if you asked us to wager on whether or not Timberlake would release so much as a new song in the next five years, we’d probably have bet no. This was a guy whose musical inactivity was so unapologetic that just a year or so ago, we did a “JT: Then vs. Now” video comparing his once-stunning musical prowess to his current preference for opening restaurants and playing in celebrity golf tournaments. It was depressing, to say the least.
As you’re all extremely aware of by now, though, JT is back. In the last month—and yes, it’s still only been a month—he’s released his big comeback single, announced a new album (along with leaked tracklist and artwork), played a Super Bowl pre-show party, unveiled a big sponsorship deal with Bud Light, and not only performed at the Grammys, but also came out alongside Academy of Music CEO Neil Portnoy to talk about how important teachers are (or something) and banter about how great the Awards were going, and then released a new song after the show was over. If JT is trying to make up for lost time, he still has a real long way to go—lest we forget, he released his last album seven years ago—but he might get there in record time just the same.
For the most part, it’s great to have Timberlake back. “Suit & Tie” didn’t blow our minds, but it didn’t take too long to win us over just the same. He was great at the Grammys last night. The eight-minute-long love song “Mirrors” isn’t perfect, but it’s moving stuff and fascinating new territory for JT, and could be brilliant in context on The 20/20 Experience. He’s as charming and skilled and creative as ever, and its rightful that 20/20 Experience (and its inevitable accompanying tour) should be among the most anticipated musical events of 2013.
Yet, there’s a certain arrogance to the scale and overwhelming suddenness of JT’s comeback attempt that’s a little off-putting. It’s as if, after seven years gone, he expects to slip back into his role as World’s Biggest Pop Star without anyone questioning his claim to the throne (or pointing out “Hey man, you know, you’ve been gone for like a really long time…”) Timberlake’s behavior hasn’t been of a pop star looking to re-prove himself, but one who still views himself as the face of the whole franchise, the esteemed representative of pop music at large, one who can tweet a teaser to an announcement of a countdown clock that ticks down to the release of his new single without it seeming obnoxious or overblown.
Of course, it’s not a totally unjustifiable cockiness. In fact, there were two separate 18-month periods where JT was, in fact, the biggest and best thing in pop music—maybe even three if you count his underratedly forward-looking work in N’ Sync around the turn of the century—and you could probably argue that he’s banked enough pop currency to afford his current arrogance. But at the risk of belaboring the point, seven years is a long fucking time in popular music. Since JT came and left the last time, hip-hop has been totally replaced by dance music as the default sound of pop, and not only has Timberlake not been any part of that scene his early boy-band days (and barely even then), he’s made no effort to meet it halfway in the interim—none of the song’s he’s released since his return bear any sort of EDM thumbprint, leaving him at risk of seeming behind the times, a pop relic.
If the pop-listening populace instantly embraced him as their savior, gone for seven years but blessedly returned, it’d be a little easier to overlook Timberlake’s presumptuousness. But the commercial returns for JT’s comeback so far have been kind of a mixed bag. “Suit & Tie” sold a whole lot in its first week of release—315,000 copies, enough to be the week’s best seller—but only about half of what Taylor Swift sold in the first week of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” after a much shorter layoff, and over 200k less than another, younger Justin did after a similarly brief respite with his single “Boyfriend.”
Even after last night, where “Suit & Tie” was crammed down viewers’ throats at just about every opportunity, the added exposure only helped get the song up to #3 on the iTunes chart, stuck behind a couple folk-rock songs in “Ho Hey” and “I Will Wait.” To date, the song has only peaked at #4 on the Hot 100, and has been slow to take off on radio, stalling at #14 on the Radio Songs chart last week. Maybe it’ll continue to grow on people and keep creeping up, maybe people will cotton more to “Mirrors”—though given that the song has only risen to #18 on the iTunes chart a night after its release, the early indicators aren’t great on that one either—but for now, the song is more of a modest success than a resounding one, at least by JT’s lofty standards.
We’re not saying that Justin has to act like he’s one of the Lumineers, to be low-key and unassuming about his place in the pop world—obviously, he remains one of the most famous and well-liked celebrities in the U.S., and it makes sense he would do his comeback big, as he always had. But to paraphrase Matt Hollywood from the underrated rockumnetary Dig!, there’s not a religion in the world that doesn’t punish you for acting like a God without being able to back it up. And thusfar…well, we’ll give him until the 20/20 Experience to re-establish his deity credentials, but he’s not there just yet.