On January 9, Justin Timberlake left a cryptic message for his 15 million Twitter followers. It contained nothing more than a date and time: "Thursday, January 10th, 2013, at 9.01am PST …".
When no explanation came, fans began speculating. Was Timberlake preparing to make an announcement about MySpace, the social networking website he has a stake in? Others hoped recent rumours were true and he was gearing up to release new music.
These rumours began last summer, when R&B producer Jim Beanz told a UK entertainment website that he was about to help out on "the Justin Timberlake project". Beanz didn't give away any details, but he did tease fans by saying Timberlake was already working on "some crazy, crazy stuff". Timberlake's representative denied that a new album was imminent, but fans remained optimistic, figuring the singer was simply playing coy.
Justin Timberlake has been one of pop's biggest names since 2002, when he left the boy band 'N Sync to pursue a solo career. He released his debut album Justified later that year, followed by a second LP called FutureSex/LoveSounds in 2006. These albums sold 10 million copies apiece but Timberlake has been in no hurry to record a third one. In recent years, he's been much more interested in his acting career.
As a teenager, Timberlake appeared on a TV variety show called The New Mickey Mouse Club, performing a mixture of comedy sketches and pop songs. Though it was music that eventually made him famous, Timberlake always viewed himself as a so-called "triple threat": singer, dancer and actor. Even so, the voracity with which he has thrown himself into movies has been surprising.
Since 2006, he's notched up 10 lead or support roles in films both good (The Social Network, Bad Teacher) and pretty terrible (The Love Guru, Yogi Bear). Still, unlike Madonna in the 1980s, Timberlake has pulled off the transition from chart-topper to film star and has three movies due this year, including one directed by the Coen Brothers. While focusing on acting, Timberlake hasn't abandoned music entirely and continues to work as an occasional songwriter and producer. He's also added guest vocals to hits by Timbaland, Ciara and Madonna. Still, by the time he posted that teasing tweet on January 9 he hadn't released a single of his own since 2007. Music industry insiders had begun to wonder if pop had lost Justin Timberlake to Hollywood.
That loss would certainly be felt. In recent years, the biggest new pop sensations have tended to be female: Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Katy Perry have all come from nowhere to become major international stars. World-class male talent has proved more elusive and Timberlake's only real rival is Justin Bieber. The younger Justin has twice as many Twitter followers and his music is getting better, but he's got some growing up to do before anyone begins comparing him to Michael Jackson.
In comparison, Timberlake's first album established him as a potential successor to the King of Pop. Several tracks from Justified were actually offered to Jackson first, but in Timberlake's hands they didn't sound like cast-offs. Hits like Rock Your Body and Like I Love You proved Timberlake was an incredibly dynamic performer. He could straddle the genres of pop, R&B and dance and appealed to both genders. He acknowledged the latter with a wry line from the song Señorita: "Gentleman, good night; ladies, good morning."
From the start, Timberlake also proved he was a risk-taker. For his second single, he chose to release a ballad called Cry Me a River, whose lyrics were inspired by the end of a relationship. Many presumed the song was written about Britney Spears, with whom Timberlake had recently parted ways, but he refused to confirm or deny this. Instead, he fuelled the rumour mill by casting a Spears lookalike in the music video, a cunning publicity stunt that Spears later branded "desperate".
Timberlake got even bolder on his second album, which arrived four years after Justified. FutureSex/LoveSounds was another catchy blend of pop, R&B and dance music, but its songs were grander and more unpredictable. Many stretched over the five-minute mark and the album contained several unexpected interludes.
The album's lead single was especially audacious. Titled SexyBack, this sparse dance track has no obvious chorus and Timberlake's vocals are so distorted that he sounds like a robot. SexyBack wasn't a surefire hit but it became one anyway, spending seven weeks on top of the US singles chart. Six years on, it still sounds thrillingly futuristic.
By 2006, Timberlake's confidence was showing across the board. When he came to shoot a video for What Goes Around … Comes Around, he turned it into a "nine-minute short film" and cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead. He also collaborated with Beyoncé, who added guest vocals to Until the End of Time, which would become his last single aside from guest appearances for over five years.
So far, Timberlake's recording career has been brief but brilliant, which is why January 9's tweet caused such excitement. As the hours and minutes counted down to 9.01am PST on January 10, the #JustinTimberlake hashtag began trending on Twitter. Sadly, the hype was destined to end in anti-climax.
There was no new single from "JT" that day, just a slightly pretentious video message uploaded to his website.
"I'm ready," Timberlake promised at the end of the clip, before unveiling an online clock counting down to another date and time: "12.00am ET on January 14".
Timberlake had already kept fans waiting for half a decade, so what was a few days more?
Thankfully, he came good on January 14 and finally released his comeback single. Timberlake co-wrote Suit & Tie with his longtime collaborator Timbaland, who worked on Cry Me a River and most of the FutureSex/LoveSounds album. The track also features a guest verse from one of the biggest rappers around, Jay-Z.
But despite its impressive credentials, Suit & Tie has been greeted with a rather cool critical response. It's an understated affair, classy and soulful, but after such a long wait this slow-burning track feels a little disappointing. Fans have lapped it up anyway, taking Suit & Tie to number one on the US iTunes download chart.
When he released the single, Timberlake also posted an "open letter" on his website. Writing candidly, he apologised for teasing his fans with tweets and ticking clocks and finally confirmed that album three is on its way. "What I came up with is something I couldn't be more excited about! It is full of inspiration that I grew up listening to and some newfound muses that I've discovered along the way," he writes. "I'm calling it The 20/20 Experience and it's coming out this year."
At present, the album has no release date and after such a long break from the charts, it remains to be seen whether he can capture the zeitgeist again. But nearly four years after Michael Jackson's death, the King of Pop's throne is still vacant and Justin Timberlake is the most qualified candidate to fill it.
Nick Levine is a freelance music journalist based in London.