At the butcher shop, a steakhouse in downtown Memphis, a banquet size table is crowded with people who are all somehow associated with Justin Timberlake: his mother and stepfather, Lynn and Paul Harless (who comanage his career), his best friend's girlfriend, his publicist, some family friends, business associates, me. We pass our time laughing and drinking wine and eating filet mignon and twice-baked potatoes, but we're really just waiting for Timberlake. It's early October, and he is on his way home to film a prime-time concert for NBC, scheduled to air the day after Thanksgiving. He won't arrive in Memphis until later tonight, when he flies in on a private plane from Detroit. Arrangements are made for a car to pick him up at the airport, but Timberlake calls more than once to see if his parents are willing to come get him. "He sounds cranky," says Lynn, more with affection than annoyance, after chatting with her son on her cell.
Timberlake's name doesn't come up again at the dinner table until Lynn notices my tattoos and starts telling me about getting her own ink backstage at one of her son's shows. Paul is reminded of how Timberlake persuaded them to let him pierce his ear when he was thirteen. All of his friends had done it, and Justin was begging to get his pierced, too. So Paul came up with a way to make him earn the privilege. "I told him, 'You have to write a song and sing it at a family gathering,'" he says, beaming with fatherly pride. Paul even drew up a little contract, to show his resolve. Timberlake went to his room and wrote "The Earring Song" – a little ditty that stole its tune from Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy." He sang it for his parents on the beach during a Hawaiian vacation, and as soon as they got back to Memphis, he went to the mall and got his earring put in.
When I finally lay eyes on Timberlake the following afternoon, he is a moving target. He is shooting background material for the TV special, and for hours he zips from location to location – Sun Studio, a Beale Street blues club, an old-school general store in the sticks, his parents' house – in an iridescent-blue Jeep, trailed closely by a police escort. Really, it's just another busy day in what has been a relentlessly busy year for the twenty-two-year-old Timberlake. He has been hustling almost nonstop during the eleven months since his solo debut, Justified, was released; his only break was a two-week trip to Hawaii in September that he says was marred by the constant assault of paparazzi stalking him and his girlfriend, Cameron Diaz. But the work paid off: Justified has sold more than 3 million copies, surpassing even his own expectations. In October, his performance as host of Saturday Night Live, where he dressed in drag as Jessica Simpson, did a note-perfect impersonation of his pal Ashton Kutcher and donned an omelet costume to play a pitchman, was so unexpectedly funny that he's fielding offers for feature-film roles. He spent the summer touring Europe and the U.S. on a blockbuster double bill with Christina Aguilera. In August, he won three MTV Video Music Awards, and then won three more at the European version of the VMAs a few weeks ago.
His position as the biggest pop star of 2003 is not uncontested – 50 Cent sold more albums and Clay Aiken generated more cultish hysteria – but Timberlake was the man of the year for a more substantive reason: This was his time to prove he's not just a boyband star, not just Britney Spears' ex-boyfriend or Cameron Diaz's current boyfriend, not just a hunky white boy emulating Michael Jackson. During the tour with Aguilera, he played late-night aftershows at small venues, just him and his band – no glitzy props or choregraphy, just a good old-fashioned rock show. Instead of running with bubblegum pop stars, he hangs out with the Neptunes, John Mayer, Black Eyed Peas, Coldplay's Chris Martin and even the Strokes. Somewhere along the way, Timberlake attained the one thing most pop stars don't, and the one thing he wanted more than anything else: credibility.
"It's a liberating thing to walk out onstage and see people your age and up," he says when we sit down alone together over beers two weeks later in New York. "And they're not screaming just because you're standing there, they're screaming because you did something to impress them. They don't put your poster on their wall – they just like your record." Timberlake is dressed, casually, in what is either a vintage T-shirt or a very good facsimile thereof, a brown polyester Pony sweat jacket, jeans and sneakers. His newly shorn hair is barely an inch long, and he has grown a bit of a goatee since I saw him in Memphis.
"I know people have an image of me in their head, but I want them to be able to see past that," he says. "I want them to see the musicality of what I'm doing. There's a portion of people who enjoy what I do. And it's been proven. There's a weight lifted off my shoulders. I don't have to worry about that part anymore."
Lynn Harless says that Timberlake's success this year has come as a welcome surprise. "At the VMAs, when he won the award [for Best Male Video] and Eminem and 50 Cent stood up to applaud, that left such an impression on him," she says. "That was respect from a part of the industry that had dogged the boy-band thing. Not that he's ever been lacking in confidence – because the child would argue with God – but I think it's made him feel more confident."
It wasn't all smooth sailing for Timberlake this year. When I ask whether he would change anything that happened in 2003, he laughs and says, "The SARS concert in Toronto. That was really tough for me to go through." It was a rude awakening for a guy who was feeling pretty on top of the world. At the summer benefit concert, Timberlake was the odd pop star on a bill headlined by the Rolling Stones and also featuring AC/DC, the Guess Who and Rush. During his three-song set, an audience full of angry Canadians pelted him with water bottles. "It messed with my head for a good two weeks," he says. "But I saw it coming. I woke up that morning, and I said, 'I think these people who are coming to the show are just really going to hate me.' But when Mick Jagger asks you to come do a benefit concert, do you say no? And then he says, 'I want you to do "Miss You" with me, as well.' I'm like, 'Are you kidding? I might actually spontaneously combust if I get to grace the same stage with you. I might actually shoot a wad into the crowd.'"
It's just before 11 P.M. When Timberlake arrives at Rendezvous, a famous Memphis barbecue joint around the corner from the New Daisy Theatre, where rehearsals for Justin: Down Home in Memphis have just wrapped. A series of banquet tables are lined up in rows in the restaurant's back room, but Timberlake's party needs only two: one for the grownups and one for the rest of us – Timberlake; Diaz; his best friend, Trace Ayala; Trace's girlfriend, Elisha Cuthbert, of TV's 24 ; and Timberlake's childhood friend Matt Morris (who was actually with Justin when he sang "The Earring Song" for his parents on that Hawaiian beach). When I deign to ask Timberlake if he's sampled the food at Virgil's, a New York barbecue restaurant, he and Ayala offer a lecture on why beef ribs suck and how eating them in Memphis would border on the sacrilegious.
Timberlake exhibits a strange combination of pride and embarrassment about the South. More than once, he puts on an exaggerated drawl to make a self-deprecating remark about being unsophisticated or ignorant because he's a Southerner. It's an odd concession: Though he got much of his education on the road with tutors and calls himself a narcoleptic reader ("I literally fall asleep"), Timberlake is bright, well-spoken and a keenly attentive conversationalist. "Maybe I'm just a good listener," he demurs.
The pride, meanwhile, comes into play whenever Timberlake talks about the culture of the South, especially the music of his upbringing. "I grew up listening to country music," he says. "I listened to things that were out on the radio, but also my grandfather taught me about Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and the importance that they had and how they were the ambassadors of country music."
When he started performing as a little boy, Timberlake sang country and gospel music. "When the family found out I could sing," he says, "they were dressing me into country or gospel, because that's what was big in the area." At age eleven he began hearing blues music and became intrigued by how the primordial stomp of the blues had influenced all the other stuff he was listening to. "I started wondering how the blues got started," he says. "But I was listening to Brian McKnight, because he was on the radio. That's when I got into rhythm and blues – Al Green, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye."
Timberlake's parents divorced when he was two, and when he would visit his biological father, Randy, they would play albums by the Eagles and Bob Seger. "I remember I listened to 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' by Queen, over and over. I locked myself in my room and turned off the lights and listened to it for two days straight. I'd only come out for food or water. I wanted to dissect every part of it."
But if little Justin had such varied tastes in music, you wouldn't have known it from the music he's made with 'N Sync. "I was so anxious to be involved with music," he says. "Not that I'm speaking badly about anything I've done, but I just didn't know any better."
The million-dollar question, then, is whether Timberlake will stay on his own, or go back to the boy-band thing. Since he began work on Justified last year, he has cagily avoided discussing how his solo career might affect the future of 'N Sync. He has tended to say, diplomatically, that "those guys will always be my brothers." OK, so JC Chasez had a minor radio hit with "Blowin' Me Up (With Her Love)," and Joey Fatone was adorable in his small role in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Lance Bass, like, tried to go into outer space or something, and Chris Kirkpatrick – wait, which one is he again? There is no doubt that Timberlake has outgrown 'N Sync. Even he seems to be aware of it now.
"I think that whole time [with 'N Sync], I was living in some small shape of oblivion," he says. "I thought, 'They're just putting that teen-pop label on us because they don't understand.' I look back now and realize that that's exactly what it was. Like, why did I think it was something else? When I realized that, I did two things. One, I said, 'I don't want to do teen pop again.' And two, 'I don't want to ever not realize something for what it is.' I wasn't able to look at the bigger picture and realize that there was this whole thing going on, this whole movement, like, Disneyworld is taking over. And looking back on it now, how fucking frightening is that? I've had some of the greatest experiences with those guys, but do I think that what I've done with [Justified] is ten times better than anything 'N Sync has ever done? Yes, I do. But I'm a cocky bastard."
Timberlake's tour bus is parked in back of the New Daisy Theatre, where his TV special will be filmed later tonight. He makes himself a cup of Throat Coat tea and plops down on the couch to tape a dozen radio-station IDs that will air in the cities he's about to visit on his European solo tour. The conversation turns to smoking cigarettes, and Cuthbert announces that more women are smokers than men. "And that's why there's a blow-job shortage in this country," Timberlake quips. "Y'all are getting your oral fixation satisfied elsewhere."
I decide not to ask whether that's a personal gripe, since Diaz and Spears both smoke. In fact, we don't discuss his sex life at all. I have been warned that he won't talk on that subject, and he tenses up even when I ask what he's learned about relationships from his parents. He offers little more than a facile "I've learned that you have to agree to disagree." I ask him about his first crush, and he says, "I'm not gonna go down that road. Ironically, I caught up with her. So I'm not gonna go down that road."
He is tenaciously private, it seems, because he gets to keep so little to himself. He and Diaz have been trailed by paparazzi ever since they got together this summer. He says that during their trip to Hawaii in September, he had to haggle with photographers in order to get some space alone with his girlfriend. "There was one [photographer] that kept following me," he says. "And I pulled over and went up to his car and said, 'You have a telephoto lens and you still need to drive this close to me? Look, you know I'm gonna be on the beach. You know I'm gonna be around, I'm not gonna sit and hide. But, please, you have the technology to be at least half a mile away from me and a get a great shot. So why don't you just do it that way?" And he did. They still got their shots, and it still pissed me off, but at least they backed off."
He says that the constant harassment has occasionally made him think about quitting the business. "I've said before that I don't want to do it anymore, and that it's just not worth it," he says. "People have said, "Well, that's the price you pay.' And I say, 'Really? Somebody forgot to send me that bill. Do you do what you love to do? Because that's what I do.'" He's not likely to throw in the towel anytime soon, but he admits that he'd like to take on a more behind-the-scenes role when he gets a little older. "I keep joking with my family and friends that I'm gonna retire when I'm thirty," he says. "But I don't even know where I'm going to be next year. Last year was the most tortuous year of my life. And this year, it's as if some higher powers was like, 'All right, you passed that test, now here you go, here you go, here you go.'"
This story is from the December 25th, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone.