The Number Ones

November 11, 2006

The Number Ones: Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” (Feat. T.I.)

Stayed at #1:

3 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

You knew what that keyboard sound was supposed to mean. “My Love,” Justin Timberlake’s second consecutive chart-topper, rests on a strobing synth that flickers through the air, never quite resolving into anything. That kind of keyboard had its own connotations. That was the kind of keyboard that you’d hear on the glossiest, sleekest, cheesiest dance tracks in existence. That was the superclub synth, the synth that evoked sticky-sweet perfume smells and laser-lights and shiny polyester shirts and bunker-sized nightclubs with lines that went back at least three city blocks. Electronic dance music hadn’t yet come to dominate the Billboard Hot 100, but that keyboard sound already had associations and expectations attached to it.

In the way it used that keyboard sound, Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” consciously called out to those nightclubs and their customer bases. Timberlake was making music that could conceivably play in these expensive, cavernous venues, and all the biggest dance DJs of the era lined up to remix the track. But “My Love” didn’t bear the other hallmarks of that superclub dance music. It didn’t have the pulsing house beat, the diva vocals, the screamingly obvious melodies. Instead, “My Love” used that synth for hypnotic effect, smothering it in creamy intimate falsetto and head-spinning sonic detail. Timberlake and his collaborators, producers Timbaland and Danja, took a sound associated with trance music, and they used it to put you into an actual trance. Neat trick.

“My Love” first leaked as a low-quality MP3 before Justin Timberlake released his landmark sophomore album FutureSex/LoveSounds. Timberlake had already come out with “SexyBack,” the clipped and harsh statement-song that gave him his first #1 hit as a solo artist. “SexyBack” was a cool move and an interesting song, and it had already started to shift Timberlake’s public image. But “My Love” was a whole other thing. People downloaded that tinny and unmastered MP3, with the vocal watermark “Atlantic Records for T.I. clearance” over everything. DJs ripped that MP3, made their own remixes, and played the track in clubs before the real song even came out. Someone put the phrase “Atlantic Records for T.I. clearance” on a T-shirt.

The world was ready for a song like “My Love,” ready for Justin Timberlake to push his adventurous pop-auteur phase to the next level. Timberlake had already worked with Timbaland to make one dizzy, cinematic pop masterpiece in the form of the 2002 shitty-ex opus “Cry Me A River.” (“Cry Me A River” peaked at #3. It’s a 10.) “My Love” felt like the open-hearted evolution of “Cry Me A River,” applying the majesty of that song to euphoria rather than bitterness. At least in the critical circles where I hung out, “My Love” was hailed as an instant classic. In 2006, Pitchfork named “My Love” as the best track of the year, an honor that had gone to Antony & The Johnsons’ “Hope There’s Someone” 12 months earlier. The zeitgeist was shifting, and Justin Timberlake was riding it.

I was writing for Pitchfork at the time, and I was on board. This was the moment when younger critics were loudly proclaiming that populist and previously-disrespected forms of music — chart-pop, glossy dance, Southern rap — were often more exciting than whatever was happening in your local indie rock club. I was one of those younger critics. In 2004, the year that I started writing for Pitchfork, the New York Times critic Kelefa Sanneh wrote his influential piece “The Rap Against Rockism.” The often-derided and widely-misunderstood term poptimism hadn’t yet come into widespread usage, but something was in the air. This was a time when America’s hipster enclaves were coming around to the idea that a straight-up pop song could be just as deep or inventive as whatever Joanna Newsom was doing.

Justin Timberlake’s timing was perfect. Even in its low-bitrate MP3 form, “My Love” sounded like chart-pop and glossy dance and Southern rap, all at once. “My Love” scored Justin Timberlake another #1 hit, which is what it was engineered to do. But the song also helped propel Timberlake into some new layer of universal acceptance. Not long after “My Love” reached #1, the Times ran another article — this one not by Kelefa Sanneh — about how Brooklyn hipsters were now proclaiming themselves to be Justin Timberlake fans. What’ll they think of next!

“My Love” was one of the first tracks that Justin Timberlake, Timbaland, and Danja recorded for the album that would become FutureSex/LoveSounds, and its woozily adventurous sense of experimentation informed the rest of the record. A few years later, Nate “Danja” Hill, Timbaland’s young protege, told Vibe how “My Love” came to be:

I heard dance and techno and was always interested in it but didn’t really know where to go. But I went to a club one night and saw that people were losing their mind to these dance tracks. It wasn’t really that I wanted to mimic that sound. I just wanted to have that energy and have people going crazy. So I knew the fusion was putting R&B with trance. As soon as I put the boom-boom-kack, I knew it.

That boom-boom-kack is crucial. The basic drum pattern underneath “My Love” isn’t a dance track. It’s not four-on-the-floor. Instead, it’s a hard, funky lope — a steady backbone that leaves room for a lot of other stuff. And these guys put a lot of other stuff on it. There’s that strobing synth. There’s the waterfall of Timbaland’s wet and ploppy ASMR-style human-beatbox clicks. There are all sorts of tiny stabs and little synth counter-melodies. On the chorus, there’s a loop that sounds like a laughing baby. And then there’s Justin Timberlake’s voice, which sounds utterly overcome.

If “SexyBack” was Justin Timberlake attempting to assert his dominance, “My Love” is Timberlake surrendering. “My Love” is a song about being helpless in the face of your own feelings, about being ready to utterly reshape your life around what another person wants or needs. Lyrically, “My Love” isn’t too different from the boy-band ballads that Timberlake sang with *NSYNC. The words are clumsy and sometimes even cringey: “If I told you you were beautiful, would you date me on the regular?” But Timberlake sings it all in a quavery falsetto, so soft and fragile and feathery that he sounds like he’s about to shatter into a million pieces.

There’s some bravado on “My Love,” but the bravado doesn’t come from Justin Timberlake. Instead, Timberlake totally understood one of the rules of that moment’s pop music. He knew that a singer could be soft and vulnerable as long as he had someone else who was willing to stand next to him and sound tough. He knew that “My Love” needed a guest-rapper. Years later, Timberlake told the Breakfast Club that he’d originally wanted Jay-Z to appear on “My Love.” At the time, though, Jay had just guested on Beyoncé’s “Deja Vu,” and he didn’t want to be on another big pop song right then. (“Deja Vu” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.) So Timberlake had to find another rapper, and he found T.I.

T.I. is about to become a recurring character in this column, so we should address something before we get into his whole story. In 2021, more than two dozen women came forward to accuse T.I. and his wife, the former Xscape member Tameka “Tiny” Harris, of a long pattern of sexual abuse. Most of the allegations follow a similar pattern, and that pattern is some real villainous Bill Cosby shit. Many of the stories claim that T.I. and Tiny drugged the women, raped or assaulted them, and then threatened or intimidated them into silence. T.I. and Tiny denied all the charges, and prosecutors in Los Angeles and Las Vegas decided not to pursue charges against the couple. T.I. hasn’t been found guilty of any sex crimes, but the shadow of those accusations now hangs over his entire career.

I’m so sick of writing paragraphs like that one, and I’m sure you’re sick of reading them. So many successful musicians have done so much foul shit, and the dumbest, most obvious response is to say that you never liked their music anyway, as if you had some divine moral sixth sense that kept you from emotionally investing in a monster. I’ve probably done that before, and it’s deeply unhelpful in every way. In the case of T.I., though, I definitely can’t do that. I loved T.I. For a long time, T.I. was one of my favorite rappers in the world, and it was truly exciting to watch him rise to a level of pop dominance in the mid-’00s. He made thrilling music, and that music still hits for me, but it now brings that shitty, familiar queasiness.

So. The T.I. story. Clifford Harris was born in Atlanta, and he grew up near the rough Bankhead neighborhood. (When T.I. was born, Diana Ross’ “Upside Down” was the #1 song in America.) T.I. got the nickname Tip from his grandfather, and that nickname became his alter-ego when he first started rapping as a kid. As a teenager, Tip sold drugs, and he made mixtapes with his friend Big Kuntry King. In 1999, Tip signed with Laface Records. At the time, Q-Tip, formerly of A Tribe Called Quest, was signed to LaFace’s parent label Arista, so Tip had to change his name to avoid confusion. Nobody could think of anything better, so he became T.I.

In 2001, while Justin Timberlake was still riding high with *NSYNC, T.I. released his debut album I’m Serious. On that record, T.I. already had his own sense of swagger — a hard-drawling seen-it-all delivery that radiated both charm and danger. T.I. talked about his drug-dealing past with both pride and specificity, and his confidence was immediately apparent. LaFace pulled out the stops for T.I.; the album’s title track had a Neptunes beat and a hook from dancehall star Beenie Man. (Beenie Man’s highest-charting single, the 2004 Ms. Thing collab “Dude,” peaked at #26.) But I’m Serious flopped hard, and the single didn’t chart at all. Pretty soon, Arista dropped T.I.

Another track from I’m Serious pointed a way forward for T.I. “Dope Boyz” had a slow, organ-laced beat from Atlanta’s DJ Toomp, and it had T.I. speaking energetically about his time in the trap — the abandoned houses where Atlanta dealers move their product. Even after I’m Serious bricked, T.I. remained an Atlanta street hero. He hit the city’s mixtape circuit hard, and he soon signed a new deal, forming his own Grand Hustle label and then taking that label to Atlantic. In 2003, T.I. rapped alongside Killer Mike on Bone Crusher’s crunk rager “Never Scared,” which became a crossover hit, peaking at #26. Great song. The success of “Never Scared” set the the table for Trap Muzik.

Trap Muzik, T.I.’s 2003 sophomore album, is quite simply one of the most important rap records of all time. Its title became the name of a whole new genre of Atlanta drug-dealer music, and that genre eventually became a dominant pop force. The album made T.I. a star, too. It went platinum, and its euphoric, anthemic single “Rubber Band Man” peaked at #30 on the Hot 100. Trap Muzik went platinum. T.I. kept cranking out mixtapes, started calling himself the King Of The South, and decisively won a short but bitter feud with the Houston star Lil Flip.

In 2004, T.I. rapped on his first top-10 hit. That was when Destiny’s Child recruited T.I. and fellow ascendant Southern star Lil Wayne, another rapper who will eventually appear in this column, to guest on their hit “Soldier.” (“Soldier peaked at #3. It’s a 9.) Soon afterward, T.I. scored a top-10 hit of his own. Swizz Beatz flipped a Jay-Z sample on “Bring ‘Em Out,” the chaotic and explosive lead single from T.I.’s Urban Legend album, and that song peaked at #9. (It’s another 9.)

By 2006, T.I. was the man. That’s when he starred in his cinematic vehicle ATL, which I remember as a pretty good movie. That’s also when T.I. came out with the triumphant, overwhelming King, my favorite album of that year. The lead single from King was the gut-rumbling “What You Know,” the biggest rap anthem of summer 2006. I saw T.I. at the Apollo Theater just before King came out, and the crowd was full of kids who were losing their mind for him. Soon afterward, T.I. played Hot 97’s Summer Jam show, and his set went over its allotted time. The soundman cut T.I.’s mic off just as his set closer “What You Know” was starting, so the entire stadium crowd just chanted the entire song without him. This was in New York, a region that’s famously hostile to Southern rappers. But T.I. was the King Of The South, and New York loved him. He was untouchable. That’s how it seemed, anyway. (“What You Know” peaked at #3. It’s a 10.)

Justin Timberlake was surprised that T.I. was down to rap on “My Love,” as if everyone on the planet didn’t want to work with Justin Timberlake in that moment. The “My Love” beat is definitely nothing like the kind of track that T.I. preferred, but he sounds incredible on that track. T.I. had a slippery, effortless flow that was way more assured than what virtually any of his peers were doing at the time. On “What You Know,” he skates all over that Timbaland/Danja production with unflappable calm.

On “My Love,” Justin Timberlake and T.I. play opposites. Timberlake pledges his undying puppy-dog devotion, while T.I. eases back, telling the girl in question that he’ll be just fine if she’s not interested. Some of T.I.’s lyrics are downright silly — “They call me Candle Guy, simply ’cause I am on fire” — but he still sells them. T.I.’s delivery is rhythmically complex in a way that complements that dizzy beat. He finds the bounce: “The girls worldwide throw they hands up high when they wanna come and kick it with a stand-up guy.” Given the accusations against T.I., it’s definitely uncomfortable to hear him kicking pickup lines, but that’s still a masterful verse. Jay-Z simply wouldn’t have been able to do what T.I. did on that song. (Timberlake and Jay-Z later toured and made hits together, and those Jay/Timberlake tracks are awful.)

“My Love” is full of trippy little twists and turns that still hang together. Justin Timberlake’s baby-soft falsetto, T.I.’s growling bravado, the symphonic grandeur of the Timbaland/Danja track — it all adds up to something much greater than the sum of its parts. You can get lost in that song. You can wander around in it, awestruck. The big dance-music names of the day — Paul Oakenfold, Armand Van Helden, DFA — offered up their own “My Love” remixes, and some of those remixes are really good, but none of them can match the wonder of the original.

Paul Hunter directed the “My Love” video, and it’s mostly Justin Timberlake and friends dancing against a white background. Timberlake and T.I. do a quick synchronized shimmy-shake thing, but T.I. delivers most of his verse from a throne, while a girl crawls all over him and plays with the rubber band on his wrist. (The rubber band was a key part of the Tip mythos. He was the rubber band man, wild as the Taliban, nine in his right, .45 in his other hand.) In the most memorable shots, Timberlake stretches his arms wide, while magical CGI objects — violins, love letters, a single ring — fly out around him.

Crucially, the “My Love” video also includes the little intro that appeared on FutureSex/LoveSounds album. The intro is pretty simple — a few syncopated bells clanging while Justin Timberlake and Timbaland trade off clumsily rapping flirty banter. (JT: “Let me make an indecent proposal/ Let me take you to the back and do what we supposed to.”) It’s basically the two of them doing what Timbaland and Nelly Furtado had already done on “Promiscuous.” But when those hypnotic keyboards arrive, the transition is sudden and dramatic. In that context, the song hits like a drug.

Justin Timberlake and Timbaland opened the 2006 VMAs by peforming both “SexyBack” and the not-released-yet “My Love.” When FutureSex/LoveSounds came out, the “My Love” leak had primed critics to go crazy, and that’s what we did. (It’s what I did, anyway.) By the time “My Love” reached #1, FutureSex was already double platinum.

In December 2006, a few days after “My Love” fell out of the #1 spot, Justin Timberlake did double-duty on Saturday Night Live, hosting and serving as musical guest for the second time. That episode debuted another song that probably would’ve also gone to #1 if Billboard was factoring in YouTube streams at the time. Timberlake and his new friend Andy Samberg dressed up as early-’90s R&B cheeseballs and sang the horny holiday novelty song “Dick In A Box,” which went far beyond meme status. “Dick In A Box” never charted, if only because it didn’t get a proper release at the time. In the early days of YouTube, it was the most-watched video in the site’s history. (The highest-charting single from Andy Samberg’s group the Lonely Island, the 2010 Akon collab “I Just Had Sex,” peaked at #30. Akon will appear in this column very soon.)

I saw Justin Timberlake at Madison Square Garden on the FutureSex/LoveSounds tour. As far as I know, this was the only time I’ve ever been in the same room as Donald Trump. The show was incredible — a meticulously choreographed in the-round sex-funk circus spectacular. At the end of the night, Timberlake and Andy Samberg put on the baggy suits and the fake beards and sang “Dick In A Box” to an ecstatic crowd, and it probably got an even more rapturous reaction than “My Love.” In that moment, Justin Timberlake seemed bigger than pop music. We’ll see him in this column again soon. We’ll see T.I. and Timbaland, too.

GRADE: 9/10

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BONUS BEATS: There are a lot of things that I could put in this section, like the Klaxons cover or the Lonely Island sample. But one “My Love” bonus beat stands above them all. In a 2017 visit to the BBC Live Lounge, the xx performed a truly staggering cover of “My Love,” giving the track a whole new beat and working in a little bit of Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds classic “LoveStoned.” (Maybe that beat comes from a dance track that I don’t recognize, but it’s new to me.) I love this cover so much. Here it is:

(The xx don’t have any Hot 100 hits, which seems stupid. But Drake and Rihanna did build their 2012 hit “Take Care” from a sample of one of Jamie xx’s Gil Scott-Heron remixes, so maybe that counts. “Take Care” peaked at #7; it’s a 10. “LoveStoned” peaked at #17.)

Now, if I wrote you a Number Ones book and made you smile at every word I wrote, what would you do? The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. You can buy it here.

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