Judging from the initially unrecognizable vocals of his single “SexyBack,” not to mention the skinny pants and grotesque expression he sports on his new album’s cover, it seemed like Justin Timberlake was prepared to get ugly for his art. And by ugly I mean in the same way his face contorted like someone with a neurological disorder while hitting the falsetto notes during his performance of “Señorita” on SNL a few years back. If I superficially enjoyed Timberlake’s music in the past (everything from “Bye Bye Bye” to “Girlfriend” to “Like I Love You”), I found genuine respect for him as an artist after seeing that performance, which was one of a former boy band singer proving he had the chops to not only sing live (and solo), but also play an instrument (well) and lead an actual band. It was in stark contrast to the pop-star posturing of his solo live debut on the VMAs a year earlier.
Timbaland, who produced half of Justified, was moving in a similar direction in his work with other artists (Bubba Sparxxx, Alicia Keys, Brandy), so it seemed like an inevitable progression for the two to produce something even warmer and more organic for Timberlake’s follow-up, FutureSex/LoveSounds. Instead, the pair has hit back with the complete opposite: songs that are cool, futuristic, and often synthetically brittle. It’s fitting, I suppose; now that Timberlake actually is a bona fide pop star, the music has to be slick and spit-polished enough to gleam from a thousand light years away. Take “SexyBack,” for example, with its unabashed 4/4 beat and affected (and effected) vocals. It might be the best worst lead single ever; even those who hate it don’t seem unconvinced of the album’s impending treasures.
“SexyBack” is a shameless tease, a setup for the next single and the rest of the album. The next single being, of course, “My Love,” a track that mixes Timberlake’s proud beatboxing talent with colossal, futuristic synth swirls and a cartoonish, maniacal giggle that’s looped ad infinitum a la the crying baby from Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” The song’s prelude features the Tims trading rhymes with each other similar to “Promiscuous,” and many of the album’s interludes play less like transitional pieces and more like extended, multipart versions in the disco 12” tradition, particularly the string-laden “Love Stoned/I Think She Knows” and “What Goes Around…/…Comes Around,” an ostensible sequel to “Cry Me A River,” both lyrically and musically (though Timberlake denies it’s about his famous ex).
Timbaland is the chief producer here, with lackluster contributions by Will.I.Am and Rick Rubin proving that, if anything, Timberlake met his match in Timbo. On Justified, however, Timbaland brought the proverbial bass while The Neptunes provided the treble, and that balance is missing (though perhaps not sorely) here. The first half—the FutureSex half?—is stacked with the album’s best tracks, while the latter half falls flaccid. It’s easy to get suckered into using a gospel choir as a short-cut to injecting soul into a song and only the finest pop songs have managed to deliver the pious goods (“Like A Prayer” and “Man In The Mirror” are the pop templates); “Losing My Way” shoots and misses, primarily due to its forced social commentary: “Hi, my name is Bob and I work at my job/I make 40-something dollars a day…Now I got a problem with that little white rock/See I can’t put down the pipe.”
Writing lyrics have never been Timberlake’s strength and FutureSex/LoveSounds is no exception. “Is it really cocky if you know that it’s true?” he asks on the Prince-esque “Sexy Ladies” (if his debut summoned the ghost of ‘80s-era MJ, the new album conjures Prince). Uh, yeah, Justin, it really is cocky. The singer seems to be under the assumption that sexy means using the words “sex” and “sexy” in almost every song. But there’s no denying those beats and, to a slightly lesser degree, that voice—to many, the voice of a generation. FutureSex/LoveSounds isn’t the album I hoped or predicted it would be (aside from a lone guitar here and a string section there), and it also isn’t the future-pop many will claim it to be. But it’s a lot like Justified in that it’s a solid collection of expertly produced pop songs whose flaws will be devoured by its almost guaranteed string of hits.