It’s 2001: we’ve just passed the peak of the ‘90s/early 2000s pop experience. Boy bands like *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys are still sharing the pop crown with artists like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, ruling airwaves and the program formally known as TRL. With most of these artists at two or more albums in, some of them took their moment to reinvent themselves. *NSYNC was no exception. Celebrity brought about a new and rather telling-era for *NSYNC, one that we can now see was basically the launching point for Justin Timberlake’s solo career.
If you watch the videos for “Girlfriend” or “Gone,” the latter two singles from this album, it’s fairly obvious that they were going in this direction. It starts to look more and more like Timberlake is the lead, while Chasez, Fatone, Kirkpatrick, and Bass are his backup. While he and Chasez still share lead vocals on the majority of the songs, he takes center stage when it comes to the videos. “Gone” shows him carrying the narrative of a breakup, surrounding with the support of the rest of the band. Despite sharing the lead vocals with Chasez, he’s the one racing the car and taking a more prominent role in “Girlfriend.”
On a different note, *NSYNC decided to take more creative control over this album. Timberlake and/or Chasez have writing credit on all but three tracks (these bing “Tell Me, Tell Me…Baby,” “Just Don’t Tell Me That,” and “Do Your Thing”), though they are never credited on the same song.
There’s a distinct shift in topics from their first two albums. While *NSYNC and No Strings Attached mainly focused on love, relationships, and space cowboys (okay, that was just the one), Celebrity comments on celebrity life and culture. Songs like “Pop” and “Celebrity” call out various people for being fake and trying to use them for their status. Ironically, “Pop” also makes a stand about the lasting impact of the band: “Sick and tired of hearing all these people talk about/What’s the deal with this pop life and when is it going to fade out/I think you’ve got to realize what we’re doing is not a trend/We got the gift of melody, we’re going to bring it til the end.” Within the year, the band would be broken up. The arrogance of man, pride cometh before the fall, etc. etc. etc.
Of course, Celebrity also explores the usual relationship fair with songs like “The Two of Us” and “Tell Me, Tell Me…Baby.” Their last single “Girlfriend” has a fairly common message among their discography, but proved to be another departure. They re-recorded it as a Neptunes remix featuring Nelly, giving it a distinct (and necessary) hip hop feel.
The weakest part of this album is how the second half is rather forgettable. Several songs sound pretty similar–”The Two of Us,” “Tell Me, Tell Me…Baby,” “See Right Through You,” and “Just Don’t Tell Me That” to name a few. None of the songs are offensive–in fact, they’re pretty solid tracks. They just end up running together because there’s nothing too distinct about them. As the follow-up to No Strings Attached, this is disappointing; every song on that album is separate and memorable (“Space Cowboy (Yippie-Yi-Yay)” featuring Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, anyone?), and that unfortunately didn’t carry through to their last album.
Celebrity’s relevance is rooted in what it meant for pop culture; it’s another stark example of pop artists taking control of their messages and image. Timberlake’s and Chasez’s writing influence means that the album was slightly less about love and discussed living as a celebrity, for better or worse. It’s also easy to look back now and see it as the precursor to Justin Timberlake’s solo career. His vocals are featured more heavily than ever, and the overall style of the album is closer to his early solo work than that of previous *NSYNC songs. It also spotlights his unfortunate tendency to beatbox, but that’s a complaint for a different time.