Justin Timberlake grooves along as Stax students present ‘Lab’ results

By , Daily MemphianUpdated: June 17, 2021 10:10 PM CT | Published: June 17, 2021 8:17 PM CT

“Traditionally, we always talk about ‘here’s a verse and here’s a chorus and here’s a bridge.’ But essentially, they all should be hooks.”

Teen students from the Stax Music Academy are getting pointers from a talented and successful Memphis-connected musician.

That’s standard operating procedure for the program, which draws from the city’s musical past and present to prepare its future.

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But getting pointers from a hometown-bred superstar who’s moved more than 30 million albums?

That’s not everyday stuff.

But it also wasn’t a first for these eight students, who presented four songs — composed and produced in pairs — to Justin Timberlake on Thursday night during a culminating event of Stax’s first “All Star Song Lab.”

The physical lab is a remodeled and fully equipped space at the academy, donated by Timberlake and the Levi’s Music Project.

The “All Star Songwriting Lab” was a nine-week course — held via Zoom during COVID — that allowed eight students selected by Stax leadership to work on writing and producing songs with guidance from Timberlake and Grammy-winning producer Nate “Danja” Hill.

In the concluding event Thursday night, the four student duos presented their final work from the Song Lab alongside their in-house Stax mentors, Isaac Daniel (the academy’s production director) and Ryan Peel (songwriting and music business instructor). Parents watched along on Zoom from a different room at the academy and Timberlake joined in from his Middle Tennessee home.

“You two know that I’ve always loved this song. It’s awesome. Are you happy with it?,” Timberlake asked students Violette Worley and Xavier Henry about their song “Deception,” which led the presentation.

“Starting this song with that chord progression and where you were coming from with the inspirations you had, I told you you guys were the most ambitious, right?” Timberlake said to students Morgan Cannon and Levi Bennett about their collaboration “Save My Love.”

“But I also told you that was going to be an obstacle. That breakdown bridge? It really tied it all together. Man, I’m so proud of you guys. You really brought it all home.”

Kierstyn Pryor and Jaylon Toler’s “Memories” inspired Timberlake to break into song himself, emulating the track’s bridge.

“The melodies are so great, the hook is so catchy. I think I told you this before, but the one note you bent on the bridge? I love that.”

Timberlake was effusive about each of the four student songs, but seemed particularly impressed with “If You Know,” from Shaylon Venney and Kylan Ayers, smiling and shaking his head in surprise as he listened along.

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“You guys crushed this one. Every moment is exciting,” he told them. “I could hear that song on the radio right now.”

A native of Millington, on the north end of the Memphis metro area, Timberlake has had many Memphis connections over the years as he rose to stardom, first out of the Orlando, Florida, teen pop scene and then into an adult pop/R&B star. From acting in Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer’s “Black Snake Moan” to developing local hip-hop band Free Sol to his past ownership of the golf course Mirimichi to doing tour prep across the border at North Mississippi’s Landers Center.

Timberlake’s working relationship with the Stax Music Academy began in 2019, when he and superstar producer Timbaland came to town for an in-person two-day songwriting workshop with students, out of which grew this “Song Lab” project.

The intersection of Timberlake and Stax has gone national a couple of times recently.

In December 2019, Timberlake and television host Ellen DeGeneres announced a $250,000 gift to the academy on the Christmas special “Ellen’s Greatest Night of Giveaways.”

And earlier this year, a pre-taped performance of Timberlake and Stax students from inside the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and from McLemore Avenue just outside the museum doors, was part of the nationally televised “Celebrating America” broadcast after the Presidential inauguration.

For the students, the presentation to Timberlake was the grand finale of a full day, which included tours to the Memphis Record Pressing plant and to various music facilities at Crosstown Concourse, including the new Memphis Listening Lab and WYXR radio.

This inspired an interesting trip down memory lane from Timberlake.

“I had no idea that I was making music and signed to a label that was all the way in New York and then they were making my vinyls in Memphis,” Timberlake said.

“For years I had no idea. Then finally, it came through on a test copy of ‘The 20/20 Experience,’ so like eight years ago. It said ‘Memphis Pressing.’ I thought they’d just taken the name as an homage to the city, but no, it was done there. That blew my mind. I’m glad you got to see that.”

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The hope is that the “All Star Song Lab” project will be recurring, and maybe not fully virtual in the future.

“I wish I could be there in person with you,” Timberlake told the students at the end of the presentation. “Even having just a Zoom meeting with someone from a studio is awkward, so I anticipated this being challenging for us. Credit to you guys being so open to this, and to your mentors (in Memphis). In some ways, it gave us an opportunity to just zone in on the music and how it sounded. But hopefully next time around we can do this in person.”

Then he thought about it.

“We will do it in person next time. Let’s just put that in the air.”