In past sketches on “Saturday Night Live,” Justin Timberlake has played a smack-talking mascot, a member of the Bee Gees and a cad who gift-wraps his privates. When he hosts the show for the fifth time Saturday, he’ll be returning to his most anticipated role: Justin Timberlake, pop singer.
It has been almost seven years since the 32-year-old star released his last album, a smash that sold nine million copies and introduced the catchphrase “bringing sexy back.” After taking a break from music to throw himself into acting, entrepreneurship and tech investing, Mr. Timberlake will release his third solo album, “The 20/20 Experience,” on March 19.
The response will determine whether the hiatus has worked for or against him. Seven years is long enough for a whole crop of Biebers and Gagas to spring up, and for many of Mr. Timberlake’s former teen followers to reach adulthood. He’s also confronting a Catch-22 of music stardom: The fans who were most impatient for a follow-up to his dance sound could be left cold by the grown-up R&B he’s embracing now.
Promotion for “The 20/20 Experience” has taken the form of a smart-bomb attack, targeting a handful of the biggest outlets for exposure, especially on television. Last month he appeared on the Grammy Awards, not as a nominee but as the only performer pushing brand-new material. He did two songs and appeared in two commercials for his corporate partners, Target TGT -0.41% (selling a deluxe version of his album) and Anheuser-Busch (he is “creative director” of its Bud Light Platinum brand).
Next week, after his “SNL” gig, he’s scheduled to appear five consecutive nights on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” These two TV series have probably been more important to the momentum of Mr. Timberlake’s career than anything he did during the interim between records, including acting in such movies as “The Social Network.” On “SNL,” he stepped out as a comedic actor who happened to moonlight as a straight-faced singer and dancer. Viral hits helped spread that image, including “The History of Rap,” a series of medleys from Mr. Fallon’s show.
For Mr. Timberlake, a Mouseketeer before he joined boy band *NSYNC, the rigorous training of his youth was money in the bank. “SNL” creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels says the singer is a now-rare breed he recalls from working on variety shows such as “Laugh-In” in the 1960s: “Before the music business changed and singers went into arenas, there were people who came out of nightclubs who could sing and dance and do comedy.” Of Mr. Timberlake, he says, “In another life, he might have been Dean Martin.” For Saturday’s show, the singer asked to revisit a 1990 sketch in which Tom Hanks was admitted to a posh Five-Timer’s Club, where fellow repeat hosts Paul Simon, Steve Martin and Elliott Gould presided in smoking jackets.
Mr. Timberlake already threaded one needle with his transition from a teen pinup to the club-crawler of his 2006 release, “FutureSex/LoveSounds.” The new album presents the recently married singer as more of a sophisticate in black tie, with a throwback sound that references Donny Hathaway and Al Green. Staticky touches from co-producer Timbaland help give the music a sheen of “futuristic soul,” as it is described by Peter Edge, chief executive of RCA Records, Mr. Timberlake’s label.
Based on the handful of songs the singer has made public so far, some critics have complained that he’s playing it too safe with this brassy, retro sound. Another view is that he’s ahead of a trend. “If you look at music cycles, every 10 years it repeats. We’re now leaving the dance-pop phase that he helped usher in” in 2006, says Guy Zapoleon, a senior vice president at Clear Channel radio, which is doing an album-release event with the artist.
Despite the long dry spell between records, the new material was rolled out relatively quickly. Mr. Timberlake finished the album just before Christmas. To avoid trying his fans’ patience any longer—or risking online leaks—he wanted to put out the whole album right away, says manager Johnny Wright says. Instead, an online countdown clock led to the Jan. 14 release of one song, “Suit & Tie.” The debut was also used to draw attention to the redesigned social network MySpace. (Mr. Timberlake is a part owner.)
The fast-track release campaign reflects how much has changed in the business since the singer’s *NSYNC days. That band’s peak in 2000—when in one week it sold 2.4 million copies of the album “No Strings Attached”—coincided with the last hurrah of the pre-Napster industry. Even when “FutureSex/LoveSounds” came out, physical record stores were still entrenched. “We used to drive by at midnight and see the people lined up,” recalls Mr. Wright, Mr. Timberlake’s manager since the singer was 13.
It’s almost certain that “The 20/20 Experience” will debut with strong numbers: Advance sales of the album are on par with preorders of the biggest releases of the last year, Mr. Edge says. But in recent years, even anticipated albums by established acts have fallen off quickly after big debuts.
To keep up the pace, Mr. Timberlake will reserve his marketing ammunition. “He won’t be doing every chat show and appear to be schlepping,” Mr. Edge says. One high-visibility appearance on his calendar that’s not available to every music star: a 12-city stadium tour with co-headliner Jay-Z.