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Justin Timberlake's 'Suit & Tie' and the Art of the Lead Single

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I am a fairly diehard fan of Justin Timberlake's music. I remember hearing "Like I Love You" on the radio and wondering "Good Lord, who is that?" and being floored to learn it was That Curly Haired Dude from *NSync. I saw the Futuresex/Loveshow at Madison Square Garden live, and then had a viewing party when the same show appeared on HBO a few months later. I have been a vocal proponent of the "Justin Bieber does not deserve to carry the mantle of the 'Justin' name in pop music" (which probably says more about my age than it does about Justin Bieber, who I actually think is quite talented).

After a six-year hiatus, we now have "Suit & Tie," which is almost as noteworthy for what it isn't as what it is. First let's get this out of the way: it is no "My Love." It is no "Cry Me a River." But perhaps more importantly: it is not a lazy Timbaland retread a la both Shock Value albums. And it is not a 4-On-The-Floor Guetta-esque EDM track with a dubstep breakdown -- and thank sweet Jesus for that (as a Jew, I don't thank Jesus often, but I'll thank him for this one).

So what is "Suit & Tie?" First let's discuss the art of the lead single, an art in which JT is well-versed. Sometimes an artist picks a lead single that may not be the obvious choice. For instance, "The Girl Is Mine" was the lead single off of Thriller. Think about that for a moment -- the schmaltzy McCartney-duo love ballad was the lead single on an album that contained "Billie Fuckin Jean." Why? Who knows. Maybe the label forced it because of the high profile McCartney presence. Maybe Michael Jackson really loved that song, or thought it best to play it safe. But for whatever reason, the world's first impression of one of the best pop albums of all time was "The Girl Is Mine" -- arguably the worst song on the album.

Justin Timberlake's lead single off of Justified was not the epic pop masterpiece, "Cry Me A River," but rather the more uptempo, sparse, Neptunes-produced "Like I Love You." "Cry Me A River" has hooks for days, but "Like I Love You" was more of a sonic 'Statement of Cool.' Likewise, JT pushed "Sexyback" over "My Love" as the lead single off of Futuresex/Lovesounds, despite the latter being the far superior song (in my opinion, at least). Again, "My Love" has a string of hooks and an unbelievable beat which has been ripped off dozens of times, whereas "Sexyback" barely has a melody. But as before, "Sexyback" is a statement. Though it was followed by catchier songs, it still serves as an excellent mission statement for the record.

Which brings us back to "Suit & Tie." Is this a mission statement for 20/20, and if so, what sort of mission statement? If the statement is, "I am going to record kinda lounge-y 'Ain't No Other Man' meets Robin Thicke throwback pop," we may be in trouble. But like I said, I think the statement is more subtractive than that. I'd like to think he's saying "Look, I'm not going to record a 'Calvin Harris featuring Pitbull Featuring Justin Timberlake' record. I'm not going to record Shock Value 5. I'm going to do my thing." And in this case "his thing" is a variation on that for which we already know him: his "suit and tie shit" (and "I be on my suit and tie shit" will certainly become a cultural catchphrase just like "I'm bringing Sexy back" was). He hits us with a killer vocal performance, filled with the JT falsetto we've all missed. And he's sticking to his R&B guns though R&B hasn't topped the charts in a while (if only Usher would do the same, perhaps we'd have more "Climax"es and fewer "OMG"s). So do I love "Suit & Tie"? Not yet. But I like it a lot, and I've had it on repeat all day. It leaves me hopeful, and I think I will patiently give him the benefit of the doubt. In a funny way, Justin Timberlake is an album artist, and I think "Suit & Tie" will probably make sense in the context of the whole record, just as "Sexyback" did.

And in the meantime I can't tell you how happy I was when I looked at the iTunes charts this morning and saw that Taylor "Cry Me A River" Swift had been knocked out of the Number 1 spot by Justin "Cry Me A River" Timberlake.