The Story of Pop: 2002 (Chapter 43)

Hopping back in time once again to revisit the biggest hits and the stars behind them from two whole decades ago, this is The Story of Pop: 2002. This week: one of the world’s biggest boyband members launches into solo stardom…

  • Artist: Justin Timberlake
  • Song: Like I Love You
  • Released: 21/10/2002
  • Writers / Producers: Justin Timberlake / Chad Hugo / Pharrell Williams / Terrence Thornton / Gene Thornton / The Neptunes
  • Highest UK Chart Position: #2
  • Weeks on Chart: 16

Navigating the path to a solo career when you’ve been a member of a hugely successful band is fraught with danger; statistically, there are more former members of boybands and girl groups who have fallen by the wayside commercially than not, once they are away from the safety of their fellow comrades.

So when, after three hit albums, five years and 33m record sales, America’s biggest boyband of that moment, *NSYNC, announced they were taking a hiatus after the conclusion of their tour for their third album Celebrity to pursue individual careers, it’s not unfair to say that in Britain, we waited with indifference a tad, largely because they were never as big a deal here as they were across the pond (to which we say “For shame!”)

And this was despite the fact their most recent – and as it turns out final single – “Girlfriend” featuring Nelly (which had been a #2 hit in April) was laying down the groundwork for one member in particular to make their solo debut. Justin Timberlake was by no means the main voice of *NSYNC – that we would argue was probably truer a statement of his bandmate JC Chasez.

But he was undoubtedly one of the band’s most popular members, and probably it’s most well known, thanks largely to the fact that for much of the time he was in the band, he was dating his fellow former Mouseketeer and one time tour support, Britney Spears. They were pop’s young dream, memorably walking up red carpets in matching denim outfits.

But of course, by the autumn of 2002, that dream was over and they were no longer an item. There’s no way to gloss over this with 2022 eyes on, especially in light of recent developments and revelations of the last year or so, but problematically, Justin’s solo career was to spend an inordinate amount of time hanging off the hook of him being “Britney’s ex”.

But that was only to surface later on in the campaign. Heading to the studio, he spent six weeks crafting his album with renowned names including Brian McKnight, Scott Storch and The Underdogs, that was to launch him into a solo career that was arguably far beyond anything he achieved as part of *NSYNC.

Justified, his debut solo effort, was preceded by a song that re-established him as his own entity in a way that was bettered only by George Michael after leaving Wham! some 15 years previously. On “Like I Love You”, gone was the casting of Justin as the cheesy, Ramen noodle haired boyband star.

In its place came Justin, the smouldering and smooth heart throb with moves, vocals and beatboxing set against a slick, funky and down right credible slice of R&B pop that made a nod to Michael Jackson, courtesy of Pharrell Williams and The Neptunes – then the hottest producers around – with a guest rap from Clipse for further added street cred.

Perhaps the biggest surprise listening to “Like I Love You” for the first time was the sheer confidence, which disarmed everyone who heard it. In fact it did most of the legwork in knocking down preconceptions. Radio 1’s then king of R&B, Trevor Nelson, memorably raved about both the single and album on his late night Sunday show when it was released. When Justin crooned “I just wanna love ya baby” in his now trademark falsetto voice, guys – present writer included – suddenly wanted to be him (or at least have the moves like him – a young Olly Murs for one) and girls wanted to date him. Period.

It was clear that Justin was not going to be in the habit of being anything less than huge, as was proved two decades ago this week, when “Like I Love You” scorched straight into the UK chart at #2. As for the Justified album, that was more of a slow burner at first, only really catching fire as 2003 arrived and more singles from the album were released.

Timbaland produced “Cry Me A River” was his second single (and arguably the epicentre of the “Britney’s ex” narrative), and that too also hit #2 the following February, just in time for when he memorably performed at the BRIT Awards in a collaboration with Kylie Minogue that left little to the imagination and had tabloids salivating with glee over pop’s new eligible hunk. Disco fed “Rock Your Body” completed the triumvirate of #2 hits in May, as he embarked on a sold out arena tour, by which point the Justified album had been number one in the UK album chart for an astonishing seven weeks over the course of what went on to be a 105 week tenure, selling over 1.5 million copies here and 3m in the States.

Of course, retrospectively, certain aspects of his solo career (not just regards Britney, but also Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl in 2004) read less favourably now than they did 20 years ago, which he has apologised for. But in spite of this, it is still possible to detach yourself from all that when listening again as we did, and remind yourself of why “Like I Love You” worked, why it was such a banger and why it made Justin the star he ultimately became on his own. The delivery and confidence was simply unmatched by anybody else coming from a boyband to launch as a solo artist, and we would argue it hasn’t really been topped since.

Don’t forget to follow our brand new playlist on Spotify – updated weekly so you never miss a song from the story of pop in 2002. And you can leave your memories of the songs below in the comments, Tweet us or message us on Instagram, using the hashtag #StoryofPop2002.

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