Kevin Brown: Justin Timberlake’s been everywhere since 2006. He co-starred in perhaps the decade’s best movie, The Social Network. He got married to Jessica Biel. He was featured on Top 40 hits galore – “4 Minutes”, “Ayo Technology”, “Dead and Gone” and “Carry Out”, just to name a few. He destroyed three “History of Rap” collaborations with Jimmy Fallon. He began hosting a PGA Tour tournament. He became everyone’s favorite Saturday Night Live host. He attended the Marine Corps ball with a fan who invited him on YouTube. He showed his comedic chops in a trio of hilarious Lonely Island singles. He dominated the ESPYs. He got cast in a Coen Brothers movie. He did basically everything.
…everything, that is, except actually record an album.
But six-and-a-half years later, it’s JT time once again. Timberlake recently surprised us all by announcing he’d been working in the studio last year – and not only that, he had a new track ready for us. That track, “Suit & Tie”, is out now – Timberlake’s first single as a lead artist since “LoveStoned”, released on July 2, 2007.
But is it any good? Time to do what we do on this here blog and review. Joining me today is a friend of the program who’s listened to way more top 40 than I ever will – Craig Hoffman. Hoff…on a scale of 1 to Cutting A Hole In The Box, how excited are you about new JT?
Craig Hoffman: If I had a box, it wouldn’t need a hole. But I’m pretty damn excited. If needing a hole in the box is a 20 (this analogy is now dead) on a scale of 1 to 10, I’m at about a 15. There’s no other artist that I would be more excited about releasing new music. The only one close is Jay-Z (who’s on the track) but Jay’s put out new music consistently and has a library 20 years deep at this point. JT’s had two solo albums and nothing more. I keep a solid rotation of HOV of about 4-5 albums. If I want JT, I’ve got 25 tracks. That’s it and that’s all.
KB: I think you’ve hit on why “Suit & Tie” is such a big deal – hell, I’d go so far as to call it an event release. As beloved as Timberlake is, his solo career consists of two albums in a decade. With the release of his upcoming The 20/20 Experience, it’ll be three total since 2002. And if “Suit & Tie” is any indication, The 20/20 Experience won’t be quite like 2006’s FutureSexLoveSounds. It’s moody, soulful, horn-driven and…well, sort of all over the place. We’ll get into the specifics in a bit, but – is this good? I haven’t made up my mind yet. There’s certainly nothing that grabs you from first listen like “SexyBack” or “My Love” – in fact, there’s a lot going on, and I haven’t exactly latched onto any of it at this point.
CH: There have been two things I latched on to. One took me a few listens, and the other got me exactly 44 seconds in. The theme of “swing” is the one that took me a few listens. The whole soulful horns kinda have a 1940’s swing feel to them. Hell, the word “swing” is in the hook, and I don’t think that’s on accident.
The beat is what caught me initially, though I’m still totally lost on the intro. It’s not that I don’t like it – it’s that I just don’t know what to make of it. The more I listen, the more I think I like it. When that beat drops in though, that was the “wow” moment. More than anything else, this song proves that Timbaland still has his fastball.
To answer your simple question of “is it good?”…yes. It’s good. It’s not great. It’s not earth-shattering like so many expected. But it is good.
KB: The reaction I’ve seen to this track from friends has been largely negative – which I think just falls under the weight of impossible expectations.
CH: I’ve seen a mixed bag but mostly negative. I think that has everything to do with the expectations. There’s been some of “this song sucks” but it’s more of “we’ve waited this long for this?”
KB: I think what strikes me most about “Suit & Tie” is just how little it feels like a single. I hear this as a solid album track, one that fits into the flow of The 20/20 Experience – not a leadoff song meant to get every casual fan jumping around. And yet – here we are.
Let’s discuss three main aspects of the song, in no particular order: production value, lyrics and Jay-Z’s guest verse. Since I’m such a nice guy, I’ll let you start first on production. (And then I’ll just disagree with everything you s…wait, what? Nothing to see here! Move along now!)
CH: I totally agree with you on the notion of it not feeling like a single. This is a great mid-album track that gets you into the major hits very comfortable.
Timbaland’s producing resume is off the charts. First, he delivered that great early work with Missy Elliot and his own solo stuff where his beats have always outshone his vocals. Then came his work on Justified (mainly “Cry Me a River” – seriously, go listen to that instrumental). He broke out again by reinventing Nelly Furtado’s career, and temporarily saving it. And then he became a producing immortal with JT’s FutureSex/LoveSounds before flexing on his Shock Value albums. The Shock Values are generally poor lyrically, but the beats are so good that it almost doesn’t matter.
This beat feels almost like a collaboration between The Neptunes and Timbo. It’s got the signature Timbaland drums and percussion with that space/futuristic feel of The Neptunes. I love the use of the horns and then mixing it up on Jay’s verse and the outro. They are very different from the up-tempo main loop, but work with the song and, in fact, bring back the intro tying everything together. The instrumental isn’t out yet, but I want it. It probably gets the highest grade. It’s in the B range on the Timbo scale which is on a pretty steep curve, but in general gets an A-.
KB: I subscribe to the musical theory that horns make anything better, which may be a slight exaggeration – but only slight. And the second the horns kick in here, you know that Timbaland’s fingers are all over this. The beat’s supported with wave after wave of what sound like glistening piano ripples, supported by that soulful horn section. In fact, on a second listen, it’s apparent that the back beat’s the unquestioned highlight of “Suit & Tie” – at least for the first three-plus minutes.
When Jay-Z comes in, “Suit & Tie” takes an interesting turn – namely, it more or less turns into a different song. The horns return right at the end of Jay’s verse, but things slow down a bit once HOVA hits the track. And then, right around the 4:50 mark, once Timberlake’s done singing, that up-tempo beat returns for the final 40 seconds of instrumental glory.
I’m on board for a B+ with the production here, because I generally love the sparkling sound and the horn section – but I don’t love the instrumental change during Jay-Z’s verse. I appreciate that Timbaland’s not taking the easy way out here and he’s mixing things up – but it just seems a little awkward and forced.
CH: I get what he’s trying to do, but I agree with you that it doesn’t work. It goes back to that introduction that I don’t know what to do with. Timbaland brings that instrumental back for Jay’s verse. It’s a bridge and I like the “full-circle” concept, but I just don’t think it came together quite right.
Speaking of Jay’s verse…I think this is generally underwhelming. He’s easily my favorite artist, but this just isn’t that good for him. It doesn’t add much to the song, though there are a few brilliant Jay lines, like the ones at the end:
Tell your mother that I love her cause I love you
Tell your father we go farther as a couple
They ain’t lose a daughter, got a son
And I think this basically figured out the song for me. At this point in Jay-Z’s and Justin’s lives, they’re both older, more mature and yes, married. This is basically the “suit and tie” version of a party song. Everybody’s out for the same things they are in your typical pop/hip-hop song club, but it’s more mature. The song as a whole including Jay’s verse captures that, but it just doesn’t blow me away. I would’ve loved to hear him go more up-tempo, too. (Think “Crazy in Love” or “Rehab” where he’s incredible.) For Jay, this is a D – but, again, on the human scale, it’s a C.
KB: Basically, what I’m seeing, is that Jay and Justin are just showing off here. They’re rocking suits and ties, rolling with Tom Ford tuxedos and showing us all “how to do this”. It’s a statement from JT – he hasn’t released an album in more than six years, and he’s still showing us that he’s the man. Oh, and by the way, the ladies accompanying these finely-dressed men are Jessica Biel and Beyonce. So there’s that.
The delivery isn’t cocky, but the message from Timberlake – right down to the inclusion of Jay-Z, even if it’s just lukewarm Jay-Z – is clear: I still know how to own this whole music thing.
CH: Bingo. This is “Rock Your Body” grown up, or in other words – in a Suit & Tie.
KB: As for Jay’s verse – I’m with you in giving it a C. In fact, I’ll even knock it down to a C- – so, I suppose I’m not actually with you.
This is warmed-over stuff for Mr. Carter, a verse he could churn out in his sleep. Its whole focal point is, as mentioned earlier, that he dominates the musical world. And only five proper nouns in, what, 24 lines? I’m shocked! Where’s the random basketball player shoutout?
KB: Let’s get to the overall lyrics now – and frankly, they’re underwhelming in a vacuum. But in a vacuum, Timberlake’s lyrics are never going to be the strongest part of his songs. Witness the chorus of universally-beloved mega-hit “My Love”:
I can see us holding hands
Walking on the beach, our toes in the sand
I can see us on the countryside
Sitting on the grass, laying side by side
You could be my baby, let me make you my lady
Girl, you amaze me
Ain’t gotta do nothing crazy
See, all I want you to do is be my love
That’s not exactly Dylan – and yet it still stings thanks to the instrumentation and the production. “Suit & Tie” doesn’t have any memorable couplets, either, but it doesn’t need to do much except not embarrass itself. (Granted, I can’t wait til I get you on the floor, good-looking/Going out so hot, just like an oven tries to do that right off the top.) Let’s throw JT a C in this department.
CH: The oven line kills me. Some of his lines over the years have baffled me. “Nothin Else” off Justified is a song I like a lot, but the line You’re out of this world but you’re not green could have (and might have) been written by a kindergartner. I’ll give Justin props for the bookends of the hook. And as long as I’ve got my suit and tie//I’mma leave it all on the floor tonight//And you got fixed up to the nines and the aforementioned “swing of love” lines give that old time 40’s feel that works with the horns that I mentioned off the top. On the “we know what we’re doing” theme, there’s Hey baby, we don’t mind all the watching//Cause if they study close, real close//They might learn something. It works – but it’s not anything spectacular.
I think what makes Justin’s songs is the rhythm and just how he flows with the music. You mention “My Love” and if you read the lyrics they’re elementary. (Though, I will say, simple works in pop music. The point is to be catchy and easy to remember. I feel like this could start a rant by you on the simplicity of it, though, so let’s not go there.)
KB: Staying away.
CH: However, with “My Love”, Justin uses the unique rhythm of that song to make them pop. This song doesn’t pop. It flows and flows almost too smoothly so that nothing really catches you. I’m in for a C on the lyrics.
KB: The penultimate sentence of that is interesting – maybe “Suit & Tie” is just too smooth. Maybe it’s just not as catchy as your typical opening single because it’s just not written that way. Maybe it just takes a couple of listens to truly appreciate.
Truth be told – I’m appreciating this song much more than I did at the start of this post. Everything up to Jay-Z’s verse really works for me at this point. Hooray for changing viewpoints!
CH: I’m somehow on the exact same page but not. Let me attempt to concisely explain.
I get the song now. I basically had an epiphany while writing this as I figured out what this song is. I can fully explain the concept, the execution and everything that’s not Jay-Z’s verse and we basically just did. It still doesn’t pop, though, and it still lacks that “wow” factor. What’s changed for me in writing this, though, is my acceptance of “Suit & Tie.” There was something I couldn’t put my finger on. I found it. This song is what it is and for what it is, it’s pretty damn good and I really like it. That said, the lack of wow factor puts my overall grade at a B-.
KB: I’m not saying there’s a “wow” factor, either – truth be told, I’m pretty much in agreement with you. I really dig the first 3:15 or so of the song, I don’t have a ton of use for Jay’s verse, and I wish JT would get to the outro quicker. I would also give “Suit & Tie” a B-, making this the least combative guest review ever.
Quick, say something I don’t agree with!
KB: How do you expect me to disagree with one word?
CH: I thought if you say that you get ratings. Sorry. I got confused.
Front to back, The Blueprint 3 is Jay-Z’s best album.
KB: Stop it.
CH: There’s not a bad song on that album, and there might be double-digit great ones. Another argument for another time.
Overarching thought on “Suit & Tie” – I want more. If this is the vibe of the album, I’m in. I think JT can pull out a few singles that will have that “wow” factor, but this is a good table-setter. To use the classic baseball analogy, this was an easy single and maybe even a double. Far from a home run, sure – but if “Suit & Tie” had the job of peaking our interest for the upcoming record, it did its job. I’m in.
KB: Reasonable Doubt? The Black Album? The other two Blueprints? We’ll discuss this some other day.
But anyway, “Suit & Tie” has a lot of positive signs that don’t diminish my hopes for The 20/20 Experience. A fantastic beat, a silky-smooth sound, a heavy Timbaland influence and a groovy grower of a hook are enough to recommend the track. It’s not “SexyBack”, but hey – maybe we shouldn’t have expected another one of those. At least not yet…
Craig Hoffman (@craighoffman) is a freelance journalist. He’s hosted afternoon drive radio and a sports talk show in Kansas, though his long-term career path remains in sports radio. Craig’s worked as a talk show host, play-by-play man and reporter, and served as the General Manager of Syracuse’s Z89 while in college.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @kevinnbrown.