It took Justin Timberlake less than a decade to transform from a curly-haired New Mickey Mouse Club member to a teen-pop sensation to a debonair, highly respected R&B star. The metamorphosis should have been no surprise. Time and again, Timberlake has proven not only his remarkable skills as a singer, dancer, and songwriter, but his intelligence and sense of humor – all factors that have led to consistent success, commercially and critically.
Timberlake grew up near Memphis and his first attempt at a music career was singing country songs on Star Search. While he didn't win on the show, the exposure landed him on the Disney Channel's New Mickey Mouse Club, where he appeared alongside a who's who on teen-pop talent-in-waiting: future girlfriend Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and future 'N Sync bandmate JC Chasez.
When the show ended in 1994, boy-band promoter Lou Pearlman recruited Timberlake and Chasez, along with Joey Fatone, Lance Bass, and Chris Kirkpatrick for 'N Sync. The band of five well-coifed boys-becoming-men released its self-titled debut in 1998, debuting at Number 82 on the charts but becoming a steady chart fixture – ultimately peaking at Number Two – buoyed by a stream of hits designed to make pre-teen girls swoon, including "Tearing At My Heart" (Number 59), "I Want You Back" (Number 13), and "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You" (Number Eight).
The boys lived together at a house in Colorado, constantly rehearsing new music and the syncopated dance routines that would become their signature. They returned in 2000 with the monumentally successful No Strings Attached. Launched with upbeat single "Bye Bye Bye," which debuted in the Top-Five, No Strings debuted at Number One, selling a record 2.4 million copies in its first week of release. It has since sold more than 11 million in the U.S., making it the eighth best-selling album of all time and the top seller of the 2000s. No Strings' "It's Gonna Be Me" was the band's first Number One single, while "This I Promise You" landed in the Top Five.
Group members, particularly Timberlake, took a much bigger interest in creating the music for the band's third and final album, Celebrity, which came out in June, 2001, giving a more mature, less manufactured quality. It sold 1.9 million its first week, second only to No Strings Attached, and spawned the singles "Pop" (Number 19), "Gone" (Number 11), and "Girlfriend" (Number Five).
After a 2002 tour, the group went on hiatus reunited to perform only once, at the 2003 Grammys for a tribute to the Bee Gees. In his autobiography Out of Sync, Lance Bass criticizes the band's label, Jive, for pushing Timberlake to the forefront of the group and only using songs built around him, and blames the strategy for breaking up the band and leading Timberlake to pursue a solo career.
Timberlake's solo debut, Justified, with much of the production by the Neptunes and Timbaland, assumed a decidedly more grown-up, R&B posture. He premiered his first single, the Neptunes-produced "Like I Love You" at the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards. The song reached Number 11, while the album debuted at Number Two, selling 439,000 in its first week. On the strength of follow-up singles "Cry Me a River" (assumed to be about his break-up with Britney Spears, Number Three) and "Rock Your Body" (Number Five) and with positive, often surprised reviews from critics who didn't expect much from the 'N Sync star, went on to sell over three million copies.
At the 2004 Superbowl, Timberlake notoriously ripped off part of Janet Jackson's leather costume in a choreographed stunt that revealed part of Jackson's breast. Amid the uproar that ensued, Timberlake apologized and referred to the incident as a "wardrobe malfunction," a phrase that has since become part of pop culture nomenclature. The incident carried over into the Grammy's later that month, when Timberlake read a scripted apology while accepting the first of two trophies: one for Best Pop Vocal Album for Justified, and one for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for "Cry Me a River."
After pausing to launch an acting career with parts in Alpha Dog and Black Snake Moan, Timberlake released a second solo album in September, 2006: FutureSex/LoveSounds. Produced by Timbaland, Danja, will.i.am, Rick Rubin, and Timberlake himself, the album has a sleek, futuristic-dance-club vibe. It debuted at Number One, selling 684,000 copies and breaking the record for most digital albums sold in a week. The album launched with a trio of Number One singles, which seemed to solidify Timberlake's standing as pop's premier sex symbol: "SexyBack," "My Love," featuring T.I., and "What Goes Around . . . Comes Around."
During promotions for FutureSex/LoveSounds, Timberlake began to show a comical, self-effacing public persona, most notably in his "Dick in a Box" sketch with Andy Samburg for Saturday Night Live. A follow-up sketch with Samburg in 2009, "Motherlover," along with other appearances on SNL, reinforced the image of a confident, funny performer – miles removed from his days in The New Mickey Mouse Club.
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