Y2K’s apocalyptic frenzy signaled a shift where pop singers became more defiant in taking risks with digitized sounds — from Aaliyah going full futuristic acid-rap fusion on “Try Again” to Britney Spearsturbo driving her dance-pop into outer space with “Oops!… I Did It Again.”
*NSYNC was one of the sonic spaceship’s main navigators, thanks to the group’s sophomore album, No Strings Attached. The album (which turned 20 on March 21) saw the quintet transitioning from the thumping, Swedish synth-heavy jock jams of 1998’s self-titled album to exploring their urban influences. The end result? Millennial interpretations of New Jack Swing, and staccato rap-adjacent flows that were previously made mainstream by Destiny’s Child and TLC.
Helping to lead the charge was JC Chasez who, along with fellow *NSYNC lead vocalist Justin Timberlake, earned his first official album credits on No Strings Attached. He stretched his talents to co-write and co-produce four songs, with assistance from songwriter Veit Renn and production duo Riprock ‘n’ Alex G: “Space Cowboy (Yippie-Yi-Yay)” featuring Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes,” “Digital Get Down,” “Bringin’ da Noise,” and the title track.
“From a business standpoint, this is exactly when we became far more involved and took control,” Chasez tells Billboard, as *NSYNC had to delay the album’s original fall 1999 release due to a messy legal battle with former manager Lou Pearlman. “We always had our opinions about our music and tried to be open-minded. We recorded songs that we don’t love and ones that we do, and that’s just a part of the experimental process.”
That experimentation led to immediate success. It made history as the first album to sell over 2 million copies within its first week of release (a record later broken by Adele with 2015’s 25), and birthed three top five singles (“Bye Bye Bye,” “It’s Gonna Be Me” — which topped the Hot 100 for two weeks — and “This I Promise You”). In 2001, it also earned a Grammy nomination for best pop vocal album.
Below, JC Chasez speaks to Billboardabout the stories behind the songs he helped curate, the legacy that No Strings Attached leaves behind, and what he really thinks about the boy band’s eyebrow-raising tour outfits. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
No Strings Attached is a lot more R&B-inspired compared to *NSYNC. Was that intentional?
We were raised in the States, and at the time, music had more urban influences — even before our first record came out. I think what happened — and this could be just me taking a shot in the dark — we moved to Europe to record our first album. And you’re a product of your environment. You get excited about things that people around you are excited about, so we were actually opening our minds up to something new at that point. We were in the middle of it, so we took on those [Swedish] influences. For the No Strings Attached record, we came back home and essentially called upon those influences inside of ourselves that were always there. We were just in the environment to allow those things to flourish. It happens naturally.
Did you guys draw from any specific inspirations?
I think the main thing when we were working on songs was we wanted it to translate live — we always saw the song live in our mind. We knew that it had to be theatrical in a way, because that’s the most fun to see. And we were very passionate about our shows. So as we were recording songs, we’d think “It would be cool if we did this and the crowd reacted this way” or “Everyone can sing this part.” We were conscious of our audience.
Can you recall any particular fun stories while you all were recording?
When you’re in it, you don’t think it’s crazy at the time. But then people look back at you and say, “Y’all were nuts!” [Laughs.] I didn’t even think of it that way. But because “It’s Gonna Be Me” has become a meme for the month of May, it was interesting when we cut that record. It was actually a very conscious choice to say it that way, because we wanted it to really punch.
For certain words, we bent the pronunciation. We were hitting the L’s hard on “lose.” Instead of saying, “You don’t wanna lose” — which would be kind of boring — we’d be like “You don’t wanna NLUUSE.” But when you’re listening to someone in the studio singing it that way, at first you’re like, “What is wrong with you?” But you have to dig and hit these different shapes of consonants and vowels to give them energy. Instead of saying, “It’s gonna be ME” we said “ET’S GONNA BAY MAY!” for it to hit harder.
Those conscious choices sound funny from the outside, but when it all comes together it sounds amazing. There weren’t memes back then, but we knew it needed to be more.
What was the decision behind getting more involved in writing and producing with Riprock ‘n’ Alex G?
I always wanted to be involved, and even in the beginning I had written some of the demos we shopped our [record] deal with. When we got signed, we moved to Europe to record and it was a bit of a fish-out-of-water [experience]. I was recording on kind of an amateur level with my production and writing skills at the time. When you’re put out into the world, you need to develop those skills and need to be around other high-level musicians.
So the first album was a great learning experience for me, to be around all these writers and producers. I acted like a sponge and learned as much as I could inthe process while still being myself and giving my point of view on my vocals. By the time the second record came around, I felt I had learned a bit and wanted to use that knowledge.
Riprock ‘n’ Alex G were producers in their own right who came together as remixers. They remixed a couple of our tracks. One day, we were working in different rooms in a studio and we started talking and exchanging ideas. We became friendly, and before you know it, we were working together. It was a very easy working relationship and friendship.
I want to get into the songs that you personally worked on, starting with “Space Cowboy.” Were you all in the studio when Left Eye recorded her verse?
Yeah, she was a really kind person. I went down to Atlanta to cut that record at Dallas Austin’s studio and she had people that she liked to work with. So I met that whole team — it wasn’t like a huge entourage. TLC was the girl group, and they were people that I listened to. So I was excited just to have the chance to work with her.
The song really encapsulates that signature Y2K sound. Did you guys feel that paranoia during that time?
Look, the song was written for that purpose. Some songs you want to be timeless, and others you speak about the time. And this was absolutely one of those songs where I had the opportunity to do so. I wanted it to be entertaining and fun, and also a bit interesting to capture that moment. Luckily it came out the way I wanted, which was exciting.
I always thought you had one of the more powerful vocals within the pop sphere at the time, and your voice really shines on the title track.
That’s very nice of you to say. I guess I got the chance to sing loud and aggressively. [Laughs.] That was the whole point of it. I was thinking in terms of how it would inject energy into the record and into a room full of people.
“Digital Get Down” always stood out to me with the way you guys thematically pushed your sexual limits. Were you wary of that?
It was just an instinct. It was kind of like, “Look man, this is gonna happen. We can either shy away from it or go right at it.”[Laughs.] As an artist, I don’t think you should be running from yourself. You can’t be afraid of everything. The sound of the song gave it a tapestry that maybe was less offensive. It was more of us making it dance-y, and it won’t be as intrusive as if we did it slow and sexy, and really put it in somebody’s face. We made it fun, but still got our point across.
Oh the point was definitely made! Can you confirm if the song is really about cybersex?
I don’t know if “cybersex” is the exact term that I would use. I would say it’s using a digital construct to flirt. It can be as explicit as you want it to be, but it’s essentially putting away your inhibitions and sharing something through the digital stream.
“Bringin’ da Noise” is definitely more of what we expected from *NSYNC with its synth-y, Europop sound.
Originally, I think something came up about a movie soundtrack. So I started there with [the song]. The soundtrack went away, so the thinking was to just go all the way with it — because to me, it’s kind of like the little brother to “Here We Go” on the first album. Putting it on the album made for a bit of continuity, because we were pushing for some of the songs to be different from the last record. But you don’t want to leave your entire fanbase by just making something so different that they can’t connect with any of it. So we thought, “Hey if you liked the first record, here’s something that’s still living in that vein.”
Were there songs that came easier than others? Or was the process a bit challenging since this was the first time your pen could really shine?
I wasn’t worried about my pen shining, I was just hoping that my songs were good enough. With every artist, you believe in these songs yourself, but you never know how people are going to accept them or not. But the song that was the most difficult yet the easiest at the same time was “No Strings Attached.” The chorus was what I wrote first, but I didn’t have the line “no strings attached” at the end of it — it was something totally terrible.
So I never laid down the track because it wasn’t really going anywhere. Then all of a sudden, when we came up with the album title, I now had the “No Strings Attached” concept in my mind every day. I revisited the old song and thought, “Wait, if I just chop this off and find a way to connect these [ideas] this could be really interesting.” So what was originally a rough go at a song — because I liked pieces of it and I was struggling with it — became very easy once [the album title] joined the record. Then the song wrote itself.
How involved were you all with choosing the collaborators for this record? You did end up reuniting with a few of the Swedish producers that worked on *NSYNC.
They were crazy and fun to work with, so when it came time to do a second record we were excited to work with the Swedish producers again. Once you sell records, everyone is going to want to start working with you. Then it’s up to you to understand who is pitching what and remain calm and remain yourself. As soon as Max [Martin], Kristin [Lundin], Rami [Yacoub] and all those guys had some songs that they said were 2.0, we were ready to hear it. We went off to the races to cut them.
“It Makes Me Ill” was such a standout record on the album.
We just wanted a concept record. We were excited to work with producers and writers Kandi [Burruss] and She’kspere [Briggs]. They had a great run at the time. And again, keeping in line with the Atlanta vibe that was going on, it was killer down there. So we ended up being lucky enough to work with those people some more. When we were working on the tune, we thought, “How do we make this pop? How will this translate on stage?”
What was your initial reaction to the way Ariana Grande used the song for last year’s “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored”?
I thought it was great! You never know what songs will translate or become timeless. So to hear a piece of our song be put in a modern setting, and essentially be interpreted in her own way because it’s not the exact same way. She took a piece of something that she liked when she was young and gave it a new identity. I thought it was rad. I’m always excited to see people take the next step.
I was personally excited to hear it because I think “It Makes Me Ill” is in *NSYNC’s top five best deep cuts.
It’s one of the better ones, 100 percent! And we feel that way as well, by the way. [Laughs.] To me, that song is a BOP.
What were some of your favorite songs on No Strings Attached?
“It’s Gonna Be Me” is always going to be one of my favorites. “Bye Bye Bye” is fun because everyone likes to do the dance. “This I Promise You” is such a good memory for me, just working with Richard Marx. That was a full-circle moment because the first thing I ever sang in public was a Richard Marx song. [Editor’s note: JC Chasez sang Marx’s “Right Here Waiting” for his The All-New Mickey Mouse Club audition in 1989]
Full disclosure: “This I Promise You” is going to be my future wedding song!
Good! It’s a beautiful song. He writes treasures, that guy. When he gets the guitar in his hand and has an idea, he’s incredible. Because we sold so much on the first record, everybody was ready to work on this record. And we were fortunate enough to have people like Marx and Diane Warren come to us and say, “We want to have you record this.” It was an absolute honor.
I actually wanted to bring up the fashion during this time. You all wore some pretty out-there outfits, especially for the No Strings Attached Tour.
Look, I’d wear that stuff again! I think if you’re going to be on stage in front of 20,000 people, don’t be boring and don’t dumb it down. If you’re on a stage that big, your costume needs to be big. You need to give people theater. It’s more interesting to me to watch.
I’ve always enjoyed when people push themselves. We took the mindset that we need to heighten reality. If we just came onstage in the same thing that everybody else was wearing at the time, we would just blend in. And the point of being on stage is to take the opportunity to go bigger. [Performing] “Digital Get Down”was a perfect example: We can kind of look like robots, but there wasn’t enough going on. So we were like, “Let’s cut some mesh and stitch some silver in it and run a light through it! MORE!” [Laughs.]
Did you keep any of your stage outfits?
I have a ton of that stuff. We ended up getting a star on the Walk of Fame [two years ago], and we wanted to do a pop-up shop for any of the fans that wanted to check it out. So we pulled out different stuff for each of our storage units and threw it in there. We wanted everyone to see the real thing in person.
Every so often, your name pops up on Twitter where fans think you didn’t get your due credit. Did you ever feel that way?
Uh, no. [Laughs.] Look, I’m fully aware of my contributions and I feel confident in that. I mean, if you listen to the songs you’ll hear me sing on them. I’m good with it!
Looking back on No Strings Attached20 years later, how do you think it fits within Y2K’s pop legacy?
I don’t really concern myself too much with the thought of “legacy.” My hope is that people had fun, you know. The entire reason we were able to go out there and sing those songs is because people seemed like they were having fun. We wanted to make sure we did that for those [fans] who invested in us. When I look back on it, I think I tried my best to show you a good time. Everything was so elevated at that time, but again we didn’t lose perspective. Understand that it’s elevated and crazy, and have a laugh about it.
I know you guys had your head in the ground while recording. But aside from the album’s major accolades, is there anything else that stands out from this era?
It just felt BIG. At the time, you just feel like everything is heightened and at a [level] 12. That’s the best way to explain it. There was never a moment or a day that you were awake and you didn’t feel like there was something at stake. It was a pressure cooker for sure, but we made tasty food. [Laughs.]