The Justin Timberlake Race Debate


    Justin Timberlake promo TheLavaLizard
    Justin Timberlake looks sharp in this ‘The 20/20 Experience’ album promo pic.

    Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience was only released last week but the set has already made chart history. Boasting massive opening sales and rave reviews from critics, the album has been lauded for returning R&B music to the top of the charts. Yet, does Timberlake’s success stem from the fact that he is white?

    As much as debates relating to race have become increasingly taboo in the post-Obama era of popular culture, Timberlake’s accomplishments have presented an interesting case for us to discuss an interesting situation. Indeed, with R&B music currently marginalised on the airwaves, he has achieved what would be otherwise impossible for minority artists who have been struggling to find their footing on the charts during the last five years.

    Despite its tiring length and a few dated productions by Timbaland – well, the shadow of the once revolutionary producer who has long lost his touch – The 20/20 Experience is undoubtedly a solid body of work that deserves positive recognition. In fact, if I made the time to review it, I would have given it at least a healthy 3.5 stars as Timberlake’s first undeniably R&B album and a risky ode to the Motown era.

    However, although it boasts the highest opening sales for an R&B set since Usher’s Confessions in 2004, the material on The 20/20 Experience doesn’t reflect the way it was received by eager consumers. Rather, the album pales in comparison to the far more impressive works of several minority R&B acts during the last decade, including Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream.

    This is where race – I prefer to say ethnicity but I’ll use the common lingo for the purposes of this article – becomes a fact. The 20/20 Experience sold 968K copies in the US during its first week but Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream has moved less than 350K since being released in September 2012 (six months ago). Even more established minority R&B acts, including Usher (post-Confessions) Beyonce, Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys, haven’t come close to matching Timberlake’s sales. Is it because he is white?

    Honestly, it is impossible to deny that Timberlake’s race has been a factor of his success. The simple fact that he is white man has given him access to a market that would otherwise ignore the music on The 20/20 Experience if he was Latino, African-American or just any shade of brown on a scale of Mariah Carey to Kelly Rowland. You know the members of the KKK aren’t publicly bumping and grinding to Miguel’s “Adorn”.

    Usually, I would launch into a discussion that explains the difference between race, ethnicity and the various distinctions of colour that govern social stratification but this is not that type of blog. Now, let’s get back to the purpose of this article before I confuse the readers who don’t have vocabularies beyond the words ‘shade’, ‘hater’ and ‘drag’.

    Justin Timberlake discography TheLavaLizard
    ‘Justified’, ‘FutureSex/LoveSounds’ and ‘The 20/20 Experience’

    There are several other major reasons for the success of The 20/20 Experience. Unlike Christina Aguilera, who changed her sound on so many occasions that she has yet to develop a steady core fan base, Timberlake has cultivated a following during the last ten years and they happily purchase his music. That audience also spans across various age groups, including the tough to convince over 35 crowd who represent the biggest album-buying market.

    Timberlake’s music on The 20/20 Experience also represents an artist with a clear approach to his craft and that made it easier to satisfy his target audience. Usher, Ne-Yo and Chris Brown all tried to juggle both Dance/Pop and R&B with their respective albums, and the results were far from favourable. In fact, the former pair were repeatedly slammed by both fans and critics for abandoning their roots. The 20/20 Experience, on the other hand, is an artistic progression from his previous offering, FutureSex/LoveSounds, rather than a detour into new territory. It’s what Thriller was to Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, although obviously not as good as either of those records.

    Finally, Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience promotional campaign has also been much larger than the most minority R&B acts. In addition to building momentum during the few months with timely releases and media propaganda, Timberlake performed on several major telecasts – Saturday Night Live and the 2013 Grammy Awards were the biggest – and teamed with DIRECTV, Bud Light Platinum, Clear Channel and Target for further support. Of course, we can’t forget the numerous placements he secured across radio and the internet. The handling of The 20/20 Experience by Timberlake’s label and management team has been flawless.

    Therefore, Timberlake’s success with The 20/20 Experience was partially based on the fact that he is a white man but to assume that the colour of his skin, race or ethnicity were the sole contributors to his impact would be inaccurate. Yes, it would be nice to see minority artists excelling on the charts alongside Timberlake and labels proving them with similar support but until that great day finally arrives, we have to continue to dream the impossible dream. Long live The Great White Hope.

    Just smile and nod.