Both are talented, handsome thirtysomething blue-eyed soul singer-songwriters who have been in the R&B-pop game for years. Both are married to beautiful actresses (Timberlake to Jessica Biel, Thicke to Paula Patton). Both have recently been ensconced in the upper reaches of Billboard's Hot 100 with their latest singles. (Thicke's "Blurred Lines" is in its fourth week at No. 1; Timberlake's "Mirrors," the second single from his third post-'N Sync solo album, The 20/20 Experience, recently peaked at No. 2.) Both hits were created under the direction of super-producers who have been embroiled in their own competition for years: Hot-again Pharrell Williams on "Blurred Lines" and hot-again Timbaland, Timberlake's longtime musical cohort, on "Mirrors."
Now here's where the similarities end: Two singles into The 20/20 Experience, Justin Timberlake has yet to top the Hot 100 with his latest album, while Thicke accomplished the feat the first time out with the initial offering from Blurred Lines, his sixth full-length opus, due July 30.
He may have lost the previous battle, but Timberlake has pretty much ensured that he will win the next one by following the golden rule that helped Thicke score his first No. 1 on the Hot 100 (Timberlake has had three as a solo act, all from FutureSex/LoveSounds, his previous album): When in doubt of your song's hit potential, invite beautiful women to doff their bras in the video. Despite the musical merit of "Blurred Lines," the coverage and the curiosity spawned by the the initial video, which was banned on YouTube for its explicit content (i.e., naked female breasts), is what boosted the song's popularity and pushed it over "Mirrors" into the No. 1 spot.
While I appreciate Timberlake's classier, more tasteful approach and presentation of the female form, I'm not so sure about going there so soon after Thicke did. From the first time I listened to 20/20, I pegged "Tunnel Vision" as the standout on the album, the song that should have served as the first single instead of "Suit & Tie." Back then, I'm certain it would have gone straight to the top with a more demure video. But since third singles have a tougher time getting to No. 1 (Pink's "Just Give Me a Reason," the third single and first No. 1 from The Truth About Love, was a rare recent exception), I'm sure Timberlake felt like he had to push the envelope over the edge to ensure a smooth flight to the top.
One bit of turbulence might come from Timberlake himself. This is not his first dance with a female breast. Remember Nipplegate with Janet Jackson? No one is blaming the nudity in the "Tunnel Vision" clip on a wardrobe malfunction, but nine years after the Super Bowl incident, will anyone be surprised to see Timberlake in this particular setting? Will they just yawn over the manufactured controversy and move on to the next VEVO video? Has he pushed the envelope over the edge or merely moved it slightly from the center?
And then there's the Robin Thicke issue. Timberlake is a much bigger star, one who doesn't need to be releasing a new single in Thicke's shadow. Timberlake has never been a particularly groundbreaking or trendsetting artist (he gets by on charisma, charm and great taste in whom to reference), but does he really want to be seen as following the lead of his main competition? Back in the day when that would have been Usher, his releasing a single titled "Hell, Yeah!" halfway through the 12-week reign of Usher's "Yeah" atop the Hot 100 would have been the equivalent.
Considering that Thicke's next single, the boringly titled "Give It 2 U" (not to be confused with "Give It to Me," Timberlake's 2006 collaboration with Timbaland and Nelly Furtado, or "Give It 2 Me," Madonna's 2008 follow-up to "4 Minutes," her duet with Timberlake) is a cheap connect-the-dots dance track produced by Dr. Luke, I'd say Timberlake has won this battle creatively. (And bonus props for his impressive Hollywood ascent, soon to be continued with a supporting role in the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis.) But can he sail past Miley Cyrus's "We Can't Stop" (currently No. 3) and Daft Punk's "Get Lucky (No. 2 for the third week, and, incidentally, featuring Pharrell on vocals) to replace Thicke at No. 1?
If he gets there that quickly, it'll probably be by a boob.