Justin Timberlake feat. Clipse – “Like I Love You”

Released:8.02

Peak:#11

The interbreeding of teenpop, R&B, and hip-hop to spawn a single species of Megapop may seem inevitable in retrospect–cultural trends often do. But that shift was dependent on (and in turn consolidated) the rise to hegemony of three pop elements: the big beat, the marquee superproducer, and, most of all, celebrity culture. Rock’s pretenses to self-expression jibed poorly with these; R&B’s traditional refusal to sharply demarcate between art and showbiz was more compatible. Once maturity beckoned, only feasible destination existed for Disney alums.

Still, most of that first wave didn’t adapt so well, and there was no immediate cause to expect Justin Timberlake to number among the exceptions. Sure, he was always a talented kid, and N Sync had edged toward black pop by career’s end, but that hardly explains what happened to JC now, does it? What sets Justin apart, though, is a syncretic performance style that references just about every major post-soul R&B star–Michael and Stevie mostly, but Prince and R. Kelly too–without drooping into mimicry. And what makes him a star is an approach to sexuality that’s awkward but never embarrassed, a refusal to acknowledge that shame and game even rhyme.

“Like I Love You” is the Neptunes at their most humane, with Justin’s loopy cocksureness throwing the track’s edginess–that weird tension between the vigorously strummed Spanish guitar and the aggressive, live funk drumming–into sharp relief.  And when that off-kilter synth bloop kicks in, and Justin announces “You know, I used to dream about this when I was a little boy. I never thought it would end up this way,” it’s the stuff of starmaking. Sure, he’s getting away with some shit. But when an artist is this on top of his game, sincerity isn’t an issue.

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