Here's What It's Really Like To Work With Justin Timberlake, According to Brian McKnight
It was clear within the first ten seconds of Justin Timberlake's debut solo album, Justified, that something had changed about the then 21 year-old singer. There was the bright, strutting piano of "Señorita," and it's bombastic spoken word intro, providing an introduction to a star who seemingly required no introduction at all. But, most aptly, there was also the curious maraca sound that opens the album, resembling the confident grandstanding of a rattlesnake that's just shed its former skin. Justified was Timberlake's rites of passage album, celebrating the singer as he emerged from the casing of his *NYSNC years. And in a phone interview with Bustle, Justified producer Brian McKnight (who worked on the song "Never Again" for the album) revealed what it was like to worth with Timberlake during such a formative part of the superstar's life and career.
Having worked together on *NSYNC's 2001 album, Celebrity, McKnight describes how the two "had a relationship since he was an early teenager." He says, "He was one of the biggest artists in the world at that time, but he was still a regular guy. Likes to shoot hoops and likes playing golf and all of those kind of things. A well rounded human being. So, it was great to watch him, from my perspective, as a kid growing into a man, and doing everything the right way."
Musically, this was something that was evident on Justified. Released at a transitional time when Timberlake had just split from Britney Spears and was trying to forge a solo career, the album features the sort of rawness and vulnerability that all periods of great change produce in a person. However, though Justified feels like a greatly personal album, Timberlake harbors enough maturity that he never reveals more than he needs to. There's a great deal of hurt to be heard in songs like "Never Again," and "Cry Me A River," but they're thankfully remiss of any direct mud-slinging (despite that controversial music video for "Cry Me A River," which starred a woman who bore an undeniable likeness to Spears.)
According to McKnight, who is hesitant to "talk about the heart and soul of the album," this may have been a natural part of Timberlake's songwriting. "I think as men, we all have a difficult time talking about those things in our lives," McKnight points out, "But I think that he left that open to interpretation, without necessarily having to talk about it. He wrote the songs, he put it out, it is what it is."
And Justified is all the better for it, still enduring fifteen years after it's release. Though the album does occasionally detour into heartbreak and angst, for the most part it's an artifact of a young man finding his place in the world and striding confidently through it. There's brief flourishes of pain and introspection, sure, but for the most part, Timberlake is observing his capacity to have a great time, while making the sort of music that other people could do the same to.
Despite having a unique sound, one that would influence a great deal of pop music for the decade or so to follow, Justified was still singularly identifiable for Timberlake's distinctive personality shining through. Beneath the acoustic guitar loops, samples, and beat boxing conjured up by producers like The Neptunes, Timbaland, and The Underdogs, there was still the clear semblance of Timberlake at the wheel, directing his talents to unusual pit-stops. In 2002, Justified sounded like nothing else, and that may have partly been due to the team who Timberlake chose to work with on it.
According to McKnight, the album was a result of Timberlake's propensity "to work with people that can create that vision that he has in his head," explaining, "he's one of the most talented people I've ever met. And what's really great about him is that he also knows exactly what he wants. And consequently he knows what he doesn't want too."
To this day, one of the most refreshing and enjoyable aspects of the album is the way in which it relinquishes ego in favor of creative collusion. Justified is very much the sound of a young man taking control and making decisions — in life, music, and in his career. But it's also abound with the zeal of collaborative invention, where a variety of innovative ideas are given space to thrive alongside one another. According to McKnight, that connection was an important part of what made the album what it was during recording, and the whole team knew they were working on something special because of it:
I think that when you look at every record that came after Justified, that became sort of the formula. If you had these guys, or a few of these guys working on your record then you were hoping for the same type of success... And I did feel that in the studio that this was something really, really special because we were all sharing the songs we were all doing. He played me "Cry Me A River" when we were working on our song, and we all felt like “wow, I’m going to have a song on a record with those songs on it?”
Though Timberlake's new musical direction was clear on Justified, "Never Again," provided a reminder of the singer we'd always known. Featuring an earnest vocal on top of what McKnight calls, "pretty much piano, pretty much just a really personal statement," "Never Again," recalled *NSYNC ballads like "This I Promise You" and the McKnight produced, "Seflish," providing fans with a clear path back to the side of the singer that had originally won their heart. In the years that were to follow Justified, we'd see Timberlake broadening his horizons further, showcasing even more sides to himself, and his multiple talents, that we only got to glimpse on his debut solo album.
"I think that most people don’t understand that we’re dealing with a modern day sort of Sammy Davis Jr. when it comes to Justin," McKnight reveals, "Singer-songwriter-producer-actor-dancer — all-of-the-above, he’s an entertainer in every sense of the word."
Which is why the introductory declaration that starts the album was perfectly warranted for an artist who would continue to grow throughout his career. Timberlake would go on to re-introduce himself within the credits of comedy sketches and movies, and as a producer, as well as a performer.
On Justified, however, the introduction served as a first step into a bigger world. It was an affirmation of adulthood, with Timberlake graduating from boy bands to become his own man. One that, as he told us in the break down to "Like I Love You," he "used to dream about" becoming when he was "a little boy." He might not have ever thought that it would turn out in such a way, but let's all be thankful that it did, because fifteen years later Justified is still one of the most iconic and trailblazing pop albums of all time.