The turn of the millennium was a wild time. Bill Clinton was being impeached, and kids everywhere were chasing fictional Japanese creatures because, well, you've gotta catch 'em all. And on top of all that, we were told that because computers wouldn't know how to process dates after December 31, 1999, planes (and nuclear missiles) would fall from the sky.
Eleven days after the panic of Y2K subsided, something did shake the world—but it wasn't what doomsday preppers thought: It was the newly liberated members of *NSYNC and their smash single "Bye, Bye, Bye," which found the group finally free from being proverbial puppets after a legal battle with former manager Lou Pearlman. _No Strings Attached—_which turns 20 this month—continued the marriage of pop, R&B, and hip-hop they teased on their debut, which even included TLC's Left Eye as a feature. The album's success is undeniable: It sold 1.1 million units on its release day, doubling those sales by the end of its first week.
But, No Strings Attached is far from perfect. For instance, the world didn't need their remake of Johnny Kemp's 1988 smash "Just Got Paid." No one thought: "This song slaps. But *NSYNC should sing it."
Hear me out: The only version of "Just Got Paid" we acknowledge is the original.
For as long as capitalism continues to exist, "Just got paid, Friday night" will always be a relatable sentiment. The concept is simple: I've got money. Where's the party? But before we dive into the genius of that song, let's take a walk down memory lane and remember how it came to be.
Johnny Kemp, a Bahamian immigrant, arrived in New York City in the late 70s, hustling as a songwriter in Harlem. In 1986, he released his self-titled debut album on Columbia Records. "Just Another Lover," a standout from the album, has all the dripping for a successful 80s record. The bassline is mischievous, with a flirty chorus featuring a pretty generic female vocalist. The lyrics found Kemp wanting to be in an exclusive relationship, but managing not to take himself too seriously: "And although I never want to tie you down / I'm into private property," he sings.
The song spent 17 weeks on the Billboard charts, but it wasn't before long until Johnny Kemp ran dry. And the singer knew why his debut flopped. "Lyrically it was weak," Kemp told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. According to Kemp, he and then-producer Kashif weren't seeing eye to eye. "I was trying to communicate other people's ideas—ideas that I wasn't that crazy about." Feeling powerless to voice his concerns, he recorded the songs anyway. "It was a totally safe album," he said. "But safe just doesn't feel that good."
A year later, he'd finally have the song he needed, one with a little more edge, but the panache to make everyone feel good—even though "Just Got Paid" wasn't entirely the song that he wanted at first. Originally intended for Keith Sweat's Make It Last Forever, Kemp co-wrote the hit with Teddy Riley, and the song abandoned the conventions of typical 80s music, leaning on Riley's New Jack Swing union of R&B and hip-hop production.
In a matter of seconds, the modest version of Kemp from "Just Another Lover" came undone. The song's sprawling intro was made for dancing, as Gina Prince-Blythewood brilliantly showed in the prom scene of Love & Basketball. "Just Got Paid"'s most endearing quality can be found in the snarl of Kemp's voice as he nearly raps the hook. Its soul is an extension of Harlem's hustle, as told by Riley, a native, and Kemp, who traded in his Caribbean island for Manhattan. The end result is one that many tried to duplicate, but few got right—including that turn-of-the-millennium pop group based out of Orlando.
"For me, the New Jack Swing apex moment was Johnny Kemp's "Just Got Paid," producer Hank Shocklee told Red Bull Academy. "After that, everything became redundant… You can't go back and try to recreate something that already had its moment. It's like telling the joke twice."
The video spews Big Friday Night energy. Naturally, Kemp can't stay out of the mirror. For millennials, it's the equivalent of "Felt cute, might delete later." The city is buzzing. People, for whatever reason, are busting out in complete splits on concrete and dancing in flash mobs without recording it for TikTok. But it's 1988, so you don't exactly question it.
Still, the singer wasn't satisfied despite the song's mainstream success; back then, the plight of finding success as a Black artist meant being pigeonholed to "urban music." Johnny Kemp's story is often treated as a footnote of 80s R&B. Google searches for his name yield few results except obituaries from his death in 2015. It's a sobering reminder that Black artists are not celebrated enough while they're still living.
"If we didn't have to worry about Black radio, we would have taken more risks," he told the LA Times. Secrets of Flying, his sophomore album, still didn't cater to his interests. "I'd like to show different sides of me—pop, rock 'n' roll—but where can I do it without endangering my career? An artist should be true to himself, rather than being totally concerned about getting on the Black charts. But for a beginning Black artist, no Black chart—no career. What a choice."
You can say that *NSYNC's version of the song is an homage to Kemp, but it isn't. There was no official video for the song, but the group performed it at the 2000 Billboard Awards—wearing colorful pimp suits, no less. Being an ally to Black artists means more than giving "Just Got Paid" the Elvis treatment. Real recognition would have been inviting Kemp onstage to share the moment.
Two decades later, Johnny Kemp's legacy might be one spoken in whispers, but the irony that *NSYNC covered "Just Got Paid" is enough to make you wince. Kemp's shortcoming was that he was relegated to Black music, and *NSYNC thrived outfitting themselves in it. That is exactly the way privilege is designed.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.