Justin Timberlake


(Jive; 2006)

By Connor Morris | 3 February 2008

The Justin Timberlake institution sits at one of music’s most desirable vantage points. Financial success is a given, so there’s really no cogent bounds around what the pop-star can or can’t do with most of the ten to fifteen tracks that have to fill the fifty to seventy minutes of his latest album. Customarily, he needs four “specific” songs. Four songs that vary enough in style and affectation to effectively hit four different markets. These songs are: a ballad, a club smash, a faux-urban “jam,” and a mid-tempo amalgamation/hybridized pop version of whatever is passing as trendy, so it can coast comfortably on its own ambiguity (or, for harsher critics, on its inherent lack of flavor). A little broad? Precisely. Justified tipped that hat, pumping out four big league singles, and landing the then twenty-one year-old Timberlake at the top of his categorical heap. Each of the four songs, with each respective release as a single, was a serious statement about the artist’s new(est) persona, and made quick to vanish the skeletons of a considerably more spiritless past. Sleek, casual Neptunes production, one of Timbaland’s most animate moments, etc. -- these made for a worthy listen, but couldn’t mask the unfulfilling seconds that comprised most of the record’s non-single articles. Not a complete disproof of his tiresome flatness, it was a solid push towards the “ideal” that someone like Timberlake has the pull (and talent, I concede) to eventually make. The difference this time around is that there’s so much room (“financial freedom”) to spare for ambition, so FutureSex gets its reins dropped, and the leading man’s capability gets thrust a little bit further to the front.

On the first few pages of the liner notes, you’ll find a dapper, now mid-twenties Timberlake in a number of curious situations. The first, slinking lethargically behind the image of an indistinct chandelier. The second, peering, almost harshly (it is Justin), toward something far beyond our field of vision (could it…no...but…a “metaphor” perhaps?). The third, dressed to the nines, and raining a sledgehammer blow to the remains of an already half-obliterated disco ball; and then there’s his broad, villainous smile, flashing a little too much pride in his naughty, mischievous behavior. It’s an age old scene, and one that diffuses itself through many of the booklet’s polished pages. The cover even sees the same ball, at the beginning of its awkward annihilation process, sitting apprehensively beneath our boy’s foot. Is he finally turning his back on the dinky, inconsequential bubblegum that originally built his empire, or is it just a simple reiteration that, well, “disco sucks.” Unfortunately, it’s a dash of both. There’s no question that this album, as opposed to much of his previous work, sounds eminently more cultivated; it’s just that, admittedly, most of that feeling freerides on our anticipation of the album’s main musical contributor: Timbaland.

There’s much to be said of one Thomas Crown in the last nine months, predominantly his appearance on one of The Year’s Biggest (Furtado’s "Promiscuous"), and an array of equally-strong numbers also turning up on that album. Moreover, he seems to have taken Pharrell’s coveted position as “the black dude in all those pop videos,” simultaneously becoming one of the most sought-after producers in the world (he’s already have been said to be working with M.I.A., Bjork, and Jay-Z in the near future). To put it artlessly: every track produced by Timb on FutureSex/LoveSounds, save one, ranges from good to fantastic; every track he didn’t produce is bad. That makes eight (count them) of the twelve songs, or three of every four, to merit repeated and enjoyed listens, which is far more than I can say of both Loose and Justified. From the form-rejecting first single “Sexyback,” to the audacious two-part, seven-and-a-half minute axis, “Lovestoned / I Think She Knows Interlude,” to the masterful, scintillating second single, “My Love.” It’s a gallery of hits, meeting and superseding their criteria at every turn. Timberlake practically has to force his presence, and does so accordingly a few times, in particular during the onset of the “Comes Around Interlude”; the back half of an initially questionable lament that morphs itself into a juggernaut of vocal melody, choir samples, dripping keys and muted horn blasts. It’s a powerful moment, but sharply points out some of the album’s most deterring flaws. The song, as with many of the other tracks containing preludes or interludes, is disparately at odds with itself. Despite the tenuous lyrical ties, the conjoining of the halves seems absolutely arbitrary. “Summer Love” wrecks its prelude, where “Comes Around” belittles its predecessor. “Lovestoned” is the only one that’s cohesively united with its partner, but it lacks any of the imaginative, enigmatic construction once acutely displayed on “Cry Me a River.” The other issue: Timberlake can’t muster the charisma to propel any of the weaker songs out of the gutter.

Justin has fashion sense, sure, but all the Timbaland money in the world can’t buy him style. Assuming it isn’t himself, there’s a lot to be made of exactly who he thinks he is. Michael Jackson, Prince, Bowie; the list is long. After nearly ten years, the much maligned swaggerjacker (the jabberwocky of Los Angeles) still hasn’t carved out a real name as a showman. The falsetto continues to flounder, and is further degraded by a mid-range being honed and rehoned and polished and shined of not-just-his-own accord. A friend of mine even went as far as to describe him as an updated, aerodynamic version of Tom Jones. There’s also the strange absence of any thematic maturity. Media would have you believe that this is an album about sex, or, more importantly, adult sex. In actuality, except for some dorky Three Six Mafia verses, there’s no reason for that parental advisory warning on the cover. Sex is a teen-pop star’s only shot at self-sophistication; drugs and gun-play are out the window, and no one wants an album about Spanish class and wine-tasting. More in line with adult contemporary, JT doesn’t get much raunchier than singing the words “skin to skin.” If he’s going to completely shed that boy-band image, he’s going to have to dirty his hands, distance himself from the Muppets by means beyond shaving the sideburns and binning the hair gel.

But, after all that, and despite its lack of depth, FutureSex discovers itself as a mess of mainstream gold, a mess strewn about so it looks more disheveled and complicated than it actually is. A consortium of dazzling instances, it’s impossible to deny a hefty portion of this album, shrouded flaws and all. While it’s nowhere near Thriller or Purple Rain, it does manage a healthy attempt at a reinterpretation of both. And since FutureSex defines itself by reveling in its own sanctimony, its barefoot kick at “importance” is expendable, an afterthought. On the other hand, given the historical burden of preconception, it’s hard to believe it turned out as well as it did.