With the pop music of the ’00s really finding its footing in 2002, the year 2003 was about a new class of superstars. Sure, some of the biggest names of the late ’90s were still around: The biggest name of the TRL era was getting back in the zone after a small commercial downturn, while the MC who’d just ascended to greatest rapper alive status was already planning his fade to black. And a couple of icons from earlier in the 20th century enjoyed late mainstream cameos, one making something close to a final artistic statement, and one just looking for an excuse to hit the nearest bar.
But 2003 was first and foremost about the new sensations: particularly a pair who’d just spun off from best-selling turn of the century acts, and would define solo pop superstardom for the rest of the decade. Justin Timberlake’s Justified from late the year before continued to live up to its title, earning its hype by spinning off bigger and bigger hits well into 2003. And Beyoncé’s Dangerously in Love trumpeted — somewhat literally, in the Chi-Lites sample that kicked off its lead single — the arrival of a true game-changing phenomenon. While pop in the ’90s had largely been defined by groups, the rise of JT and Beyoncé made it clear that solo acts would lead the vanguard in the early 21st century, a shift that’s only become more pronounced in the two decades since.
And solo superstardom was hardly the sole province of the top 40 world. The year was bookended by the emergence of two rappers — 50 Cent early and Kanye West late — whose simultaneous rise would grow into hip-hop’s most fascinating rivalry and binary. While still recording under the OutKast umbrella, the duo of Big Boi and Andre 3000 also splintered into solo ventures, with chart-topping, culture-changing results. Even the producers were going their own way: While he was always the more visible of the Neptunes, Pharrell scored a solo smash under his own name for the first time in 2003, proving — along with Lil Jon blasting off into one of pop culture’s most ubiquitous figures — that behind-the-decks figures suddenly had star potential as high as anyone with a mic.
But that’s not to say that no one was finding strength in numbers. The rock world, still dominated by nu-metal, emo and pop-punk, continued to be band-oriented — one or two even with frontwomen, a far-too-rare occurrence in early-’00s modern rock. Meanwhile, heroes of 2001’s New Rock Revolution like The White Stripes and The Strokes found greater commercial success with their follow-up efforts, as international outfits like Jet and The Darkness followed their example by diving further into rock’s archives, scoring two of the year’s biggest breakout hits in the process. And Northwest indie hero Ben Gibbard thrived as part of two very different groups, as the longtime frontman for Death Cab For Cutie — who pushed ever closer to the mainstream, with help from the year’s surprise breakout primetime drama — and as one-half of The Postal Service, the electro-pop duo whose remote, computer-based approach to music-making made their Give Up the year’s most prescient alt-rock release.
And all of this just scratches the surface of everything that was going on in music in 2003: crunk, dancehall, grime, discopunk… it was a year that produced as much timeless pop music as it did music that would only make sense in its particular moment, all of which remains incredibly satisfying to dive back into 20 years later. Don’t believe us? Check out our list of the 100 best songs of that year — kicking off a week of 2003-themed content here at Billboard.com — and see if it doesn’t move your feet, rock your body, and generally make you wistful and nostalgic about times like these.
(Songs were counted as being from 2003 if they first charted on their most relevant Billboard chart in 2003 — or, if they never charted, if they were released as a single in 2003 — unless they hit No. 1 for the first time in a later year. So apologies to “The Way You Move,” “Slow Jamz,” “99 Problems,” “Toxic,” “Maps” and many more songs all technically first released in ’03; we’ll see you all next year.)