Justin Timberlake has been fortunate enough to have the majority of his very successful solo career as a musician shaped by two of the most revered producers of the last twenty years, Pharrell Williams (as part of The Neptunes*) and Timbaland.
These collaborations have spanned his 4 studio albums, as well as combining on other artist’s songs, with notable contributions including, Snoop Dogg – ‘Signs’, Rihanna – ‘Rehab’, 50 Cent – ‘Ayo Technology’ & Jay Z – ‘Holy Grail’. Though Timberlake has made modern classics with both Pharrell and Timbaland, I was recently questioned about which combination I believed to be superior, which lead to the forthcoming analysis.
So, let’s begin at the birth of Timberlake’s solo career, with the Pharrell-produced single, ‘Like I Love You’, from his magnificent debut album, Justified (2002). It acted as an epic introduction to the new, edgier Timberlake, steadily maturing from his earlier years as part of NSYNC, who had also previously worked with Pharrell in creating the group’s final single, ‘Girlfriend’. The guitar that opens the record almost antagonistically grabs your attention before the drums are presented in an aggressive fashion. ‘Like I Love You’ contained the first of many exquisitely crafted bridges that Pharrell allowed Timberlake to excel on – who could forget, “I just wanna love ya, baby, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”? – proving to many that his vocal talents were not limited to the conventional Pop music of the time.
The second single from Justified came in the form of ‘Cry Me A River’. On this occasion, it was Timbaland’s turn to exhibit his flourishing musical relationship with Timberlake, which would continue into the next decade. Hearing Timberlake croon over that timeless Timbaland bounce (including his iconic beat-boxing) helped to further disassociate the singer from his time with NSYNC, and add more strings of musical respectability to his bow. ‘Cry Me A River’ was debatably the most successful single from Justified, as it peaked at No. 3 and No. 2 in the US and UK, respectively.
The album’s two other singles – ‘Rock Your Body’ and ‘Senorita’ – were both produced by Pharrell, who helped to provide a lighter groove compared to the previous two singles. Of the thirteen tracks on Justified, Pharrell produced seven (‘Senorita’, ‘Like I Love You’, ‘Take It From Here’, ‘Rock Your Body’, ‘Nothin’ Else’, ‘Last Night’, ‘Let’s Take A Ride’), while Timbaland contributed to four (‘(Oh No) What You Got’, ‘Cry Me A River’, ‘(And She Said) Take Me Now’, ‘Right For Me’). The standout non-singles from the album were definitely delivered by Pharrell, as tracks like, ‘Take It From Here’, ‘Last Night’ & ‘Let’s Take A Ride’ all sound like they could have easily been singles and all help to bring the best out of developing Timberlake. But, if Pharrell had the biggest impact in introducing Justin Timberlake as a solo artist, Timbaland was most definitely the reason for the consolidation of JT’s position.
Timberlake’s musical hiatus ended with the release of ‘SexyBack’, the first single to be taken from his second album, FutureSex/LoveSounds (2006). Although it was initially met with a mixed critical response, ‘SexyBack’ reached No. 1 in the UK and US and Timberlake’s brave change in musical direction, which was led by Timbaland, increased the anticipation for the impending release of FutureSex/LoveSounds. The following singles, ‘My Love’ and ‘What Goes Around…’, both peaked at No. 1 in the US, with critics claiming that Timbaland’s work on ‘My Love’ was his best since his fabled partnership with Aaliyah (link to article). Throughout FutureSex/LoveSounds, Timbaland – who produced all but 2 songs on the record – displayed his full repertoire as a producer, previously demonstrated through his working relationships with Aaliyah and Missy Elliott, adding Timberlake to that esteemed list. The entire sonic trend of the album was compared to the work of Prince, based on its eclectic feel, especially compared to Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds served as Timberlake’s first US No. 1 album, surpassing Justified, which only reached No. 2.
Listeners had to wait until 2013 before Timberlake offered another body of work – The 20/20 Experience (2013) – a double album made up of 21 tracks, split into two parts. Similarly to its predecessor, the majority of production on The 20/20 Experience was handled by Timbaland, continuing on from the success of FutureSex/LoveSounds, irrespective of the seven-year gap. The album spawned hits ‘Suit & Tie’, as well as the much-maligned (at least by this writer), ‘Mirrors’, with those singles breaking the top three in the UK and US. It can be argued that some of the strongest work to come from The 20/20 Experience can be found among the album cuts, with leading examples being ‘Pusher Love Girl’, ‘Spaceship Coupe’, and ‘That Girl’. By this point, those who were fans of Timberlake were not going to be deterred by some dubious songs, as they had waited long enough to hear new material from him, but the perceived reduction in the quality was indicated by four of the seven singles from The 20/20 Experience failing to break into the top twenty in the UK and US singles charts.
In terms of numbers, it does not seem fair to compare Pharrell’s output with Timberlake to Timbaland’s, as the latter’s numbers reach nearer to fifty collaborations, while the former’s are just breaking into double digits, so naturally, it would give Timbaland the advantage. Instead, we can examine the stages of Timberlake’s growth each producer impacted, for example, Pharrell crafting the majority of Timberlake’s debut and solo introduction on Justified. Comparatively, Timbaland sustained Timberlake’s success on JT’s sophomore album (widely considered the most difficult in an artist’s career after a popular debut), FutureSex/LoveSounds.
Personally, most of my favourite Justin Timberlake songs were produced by Pharrell and were part of Justified, an album that had a significant effect on me upon its release and therefore creates a strong sense of nostalgia whenever I hear them. This is not to say that I do not appreciate Timbaland’s work with Timberlake, though I feel Pharrell’s work on Justified was more crucial in setting the foundations for all that came after.
*For the purpose of this article, any tracks produced by The Neptunes will be referred to as produced by Pharrell. This is not intended as a mark of disrespect to Chad Hugo, as I know he contributed heavily to their success.