Since its release two weeks ago, “Suit and Tie” has become a bit of an anomaly: The rare Justin Timberlake song that no one really seems to like. Actually, let me rephrase. Hours after “Suit and Tie” was released, the track skyrocketed to the top of the iTunes singles chart, and broke records when it debuted in Billboard Hot 100 last week. The song has been beloved by critics, earning a “Best New Music” from Pitchfork and strong write-ups from every other corner of the web.
“Suit and Tie” arrived somewhat unexpectedly, following a surprise video posted to YouTube announcing Timberlake’s return to music making after a six-year hiatus. As most everyone knows, the modern day Renaissance man has been keeping busy making his mark in movies (The Social Network, Bad Teacher, In Time) and entrepreneurship (MySpace). But from his time with the globe conquering boy band 'N Sync and his exceptionally popular and successful subsequent solo career, Timberlake remains best known for his music.
Besides Timberlake’s obvious pop bona fides (see: 1998-2007), “Suit and Tie” boasts some impeccable credentials. Timbaland, whose previous work with Timberlake had yielded megahits such as “SexyBack” and “What Goes Around,” produces the song. And he has some cool stuff on his own. Added to that is Jay-Z, arguably the highest profile rapper currently putting out music, who closes out “Suit and Tie” with a guest verse. Put these three men in a room, and something awesome is bound to come out.
And then of course, there’s the song itself. “Suit and Tie” is an ode to positive self-image, to looking good and feeling good. It exalts high style, promotes dressing up in a dressed down world, and argues that putting in a little effort can go a long way. At its core it’s an optimistic pop song, which we definitely don’t have enough of; a tune that can set the tone for a night of partying without it’s reverting to played out lines about getting drunk and getting laid. While there’s talk of sex and drugs, context and tone are everything.
That brings us to the music. One of the more interesting aspects of “Suit and Tie” is its divisions. The song is broken up in distinct parts, so while the opening is a laid back call that “I be on my suit and tie (shit tied),” it quickly transitions up a few octaves, as Timberlake takes the listener on a soulful pop journey into his night. While the song is definitely about the nighttime and the various expectations that come with it, the song never makes use of the explicit elements that many pop songs so readily turn to. It remains upbeat, introducing one of the catchiest and most danceable hooks of Timberlake’s career. The song, underscored by the horns, strings and percussion of Timbaland’s production work, is a vintage cool, constantly smooth love song to the nightlife.
Despite all of this, or maybe because of it, I’ve gotten the vibe that people aren’t too in love with “Suit and Tie.” Complaints seem to be built on expectations and have ranged from initial disappointment that after six years, this is the first song released (“The announcement video was more exciting”) to frustration that a collaboration between JT and Jay-Z wasn’t more fruitful (“So much potential in that duo”). The song is nice, they say, but doesn’t pack the same punch as some of his earlier work.
As much as I actually enjoy “Suit and Tie,” I understand the ridiculousness of my comparing it to Justin Timberlake’s “earlier work” and even the innate absurdity of the phrase itself. But the truth stands — the song is good. If “Suit and Tie” is Timberlake’s new direction after six years out of the studio, that’s fine by me. It’s a mature and accomplished track that is able to boast without bragging, pack power without overwhelming, and re-establish one the greatest pop musicians working today.