Justin Timberlake-Justified and Michael Jackson-Off The Wall
This is the first installment in a monthly feature where I will take a classic album from our generation and pair it up with one comparable in the annals of music history, and I’m going big with this first one. This month’s entry is my thoughts on what I think are two of the greatest debut albums in the long and illustrious history of Pop music and R&B, Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall and Justin Timberlake’s Justified. Now I have always said that Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall is the greatest debut album by any solo artist in the history of the Pop and R&B genres, a statement that I still stand by to this day. Some would say that this was Jackson’s fifth studio album, but I consider this record to be his first as a justifiable solo star. From the first time I ever heard this record, I’ve thought there would never be another album to even come close to being as good, and for the second time in my life, I was wrong.
The comparisons between the two are pretty clear; both were the lead vocalists and stars of their respective uber popular boy bands of their eras, both Justin and Michael are/were never keen on being a target of the paparazzi, and neither seemed to put out music just to put out music. One would think that with all that taken into consideration; I would have given Timberlake’s debut album a chance from day 1, but not so much. I do not think I was alone in this assumption either, much like those who I’m sure questioned Michael’s initial ability to carry himself as a solo artist after leaving the Jackson 5, which obviously was soon put to rest. I was 18 when Justified came out and still not aware of the vast array of fantastic music there was to be heard in this world, so it took me a bit to finally give the album a chance, and little did I know that this would end up being such a great collection of tunes. I’ve decided to compare these albums using 3 distinct criteria; production, hits, and collaborations/features on each record.
Both records had superb production, with Off the Wall being produced by the great Quincy Jones, and Justified being produced by Timbaland. Jones and Timbaland produced each record at a time where they had both started making names for themselves in the industry as producers, but were lacking that one breakthrough moment to propel them into superstardom. Jones knew coming into the sessions for Off the Wall that Michael wanted this record to have a completely different sound than his Jackson 5 efforts, so he knew he had to bring something fresh to the table. Both albums are pieced together incredibly well and flow about as well as any album could. Quincy has an incredible knack for producing tracks with infectious beats and arrangements, while still making the vocals the star of the track, and songs like “She’s Out of My Life” and “Rock With You” are perfect examples of that. Jones could have easily had Michael do another take with the end of “She’s Out of My Life”, but he decided that the raw emotion that Michael showed at the end of the song was worth putting on the album. That emotion turned out to be something rarely caught on studio recordings since.
At the time Justified was released, Timbaland was best known by most as part of the 90s hip-hop group, Timbaland and Magoo. He also produced a number of Aaliyah’s tracks before her untimely passing, but to most he wasn’t known as a top of the game producer, but Timberlake would change that quickly. He found a way to take an artist in Timberlake who many viewed as a child star and were not completely sold on his value as a sellable solo artist. With his unique production style, involving sounds from many different cultures, he transformed Justin Timberlake into one of the biggest artists on the planet. While also using arrangements and beats that could have probably ended up being hits for anyone, but when paired with the smooth tenor tones of Timberlake, made for a classic records that not many expected.
Off the Wall produced some of The King of Pop’s biggest hits. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” would become one of Michael’s best selling singles, earning platinum status. “Rock With You” also is one of Michael Jackson’s most recognizable hits. As I mentioned earlier, the hit “She’s Out of My Life” carries some raw emotion that was, and is, still rarely seen in popular music. Come to think of it, I cannot think of many radio singles by any artist that feature an artist legitimately torn up by the music they were singing, Adele’s “Someone Like You” is the only other song I can think of to do the same. What makes the hits even more impressive is that a 21 year old Michael Jackson wrote or co-wrote at least 6 songs for this record. The album had four singles in all that charted in the Top 10 on the Billboard charts, which helped Off the Wall sell over 20,000,000 copies worldwide.
Timberlake’s Justified featured some huge hits as well. The debut single, “Like I Love You”, supported by a feature from a highly underrated hip-hop duo in The Clipse, was an immediate hit. He would also have a hit with “Senorita”, which I consider to be one of his most underrated tunes, because although it was a hit, it does not seem to appear on the radio today as much as some of his other hits. After the success of the previous two singles, Timberlake’s two biggest hits off the album were yet to come. “Rock Your Body” was a massive hit, clearly reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You”, and not just because of the name similarity. This track has everything required to be a smash hit; superb vocals, a catchy hook, and top-notch production. A song rumored to have been written about former love interest Britney Spears, “Cry Me A River”, has become one of Timberlake’s greatest accomplishments. Just like Michael on Off the Wall, Justin had a hand in penning every single track on this album, making his efforts even more impressive. Not many commercial pop artists write their own stuff anymore, so for these two guys to have written most of the songs on these albums is nothing short of impressive, especially considering the success of both records. Due to the success of these hits, Justified has sold more than 10,000,000 copies worldwide to date.
The music industry must have seen the writing on the wall, no pun intended, after hearing these guys would be releasing solo albums. Michael Jackson got Randy Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Paul McCartney involved in helping make Off the Wall the mammoth success that it would soon become. His work with McCartney would later lead to their massive hits “Say Say Say” and “The Girl Is Mine”. He also got some help from songwriting legend Rod Temperton, who penned “Rock With You”. Legendary musician David Foster is even given credits for assisting with the instrumentals on the album. With artists like that backing your play, it is no surprise that this album had all the success that is has had over the years.
Justin Timberlake had no shortage of top shelf artists lining to be a part of his first solo album. With artists like the aforementioned The Clipse, Pharrell and Chad Hugo of The Neptunes, and Michael Jackson’s own sister, Janet Jackson, they helped Timberlake make a mark on the music scene that would not be soon forgotten. Flash in the pan rapper, Bubba Sparxxx also has a feature on Justified, and R&B legend is featured on the song “Never Again”, on which he plays nearly every instrument in the arrangement.
Both of these are albums that even someone who isn’t necessarily a hard core R&B fan could appreciate. They both look to have the legs to stand the test of time, and Off the Wall has clearly already done so. I suggest you turn off your normal tunes at work or on your daily walk/jog, and throw one or both of these records in your rotation of your music player of choice, you won’t be disappointed.
Written By: A.J. Coffelt