You can take the boy out of the band, but can you take the band out of the boy? Timberlake answers with a resounding, "YEAH!"
I'm not even sure how it happened. I just remember putting FutureSex/LoveSounds in my stereo. I was comparing the album title to others that fuse words together -- like TLC's CrazySexyCool and Prince's LoveSexy -- when it hit me: I'm about to listen to Justin Timberlake.
Then I noticed something else: I was eager to listen to it.
Whoa. What's goin' on? I thought.
I telephoned my cousin -- another music lover -- to share my discovery. She was like, "What? The dude who plays on One Tree Hill? I didn't know you liked the Backstreet Boys."
"First of all," I said, noting the irritation in my voice, "the guy on One Tree Hill is Chad Michael Murray! Second, Justin wasn't a Backstreet Boy." I noted her muttering, "Whatever," as I plowed on, "He was a member of *NSYNC. He left the group and debuted with the album Justified, which featured the single 'Cry Me A River'. That song could've been about Britney Spears. Timbaland added his production skills to the album and it went multi-platinum. Anyway, what's up with all these questions? Damn! Can't a brotha just listen to a CD in peace? Can I do that? Please? Please?!"
"Dude, calm down." She was quiet before she added, "Wasn't he in the Mickey Mouse Club?" She was giggling.
I hung up.
I have frequent discussions about music with my father, who's a visual artist. When I caught up with him, I said, "What do you know about Timberlake?"
"I dig his landscapes," he answered.
At first, I was confused, but then the light bulb flashed on. "No, no, no. Not the artist Bob Timberlake. What do you think of Justin Timberlake? The singer."
He squinted real hard and went, "Who?"
Later, a friend who categorically hates non-metal music popped up on Instant Messenger. I typed, "Am I going soft?"
She responded, "U r kind of marshmallow-y. Why?"
I typed, "I think I like the new Justin Timberlake album."
She messaged back, "OMG! LOL! Yo, WTF?!"
How did this happen? One minute, I'm thinking about cool stuff like, "When will D'angelo and Maxwell come out with something new?" The next thing I know, I'm glued to the TV during Timberlake's performance on MTV's Video Music Awards, humming lines from his song "Sexyback": "I'm bringing sexy baaaaaaack…YEAH! Them other brothas don't know how to act…YEAH!"
I had to regroup, keeping in mind the following passage from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged:
Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.
So I did just that -- I checked my premises. Basically, it goes a lil' somethin' like this: I didn't think I'd enjoy listening to Justin Timberlake because I viewed him as being the ambassador of "generic boy band pop", formulaic in its construction and characterized by an unwillingness to step outside of "the box". Of course, part of the ongoing music debate -- the part that makes it so much fun -- is figuring out what that "box" actually is and what its dimensions truly are.
Predictably, my premises were all wrong (that's what I get for stereotyping music in the first place!). Timberlake's new album is far from "boy band" and certainly not "generic". While FutureSex/LoveSounds is not a masterpiece, it's damn good -- I bet Usher is somewhere with his head in his hands, telling his people, "I told you this might happen." More than that, though, I respect Timberlake's willingness to experiment and dance outside of his comfort zone.
It is in regard to experimentation that I depart from the Michael Jackson comparisons we typically attach to Timberlake's work, and Usher's as well. True, the two youngsters are fond of mimicking MJ's affection for sliding around like the stage is coated with oil. However, I find Timberlake's career moves more comparable to Bobby Brown's than MJ's. That's right, I said Bobby Brown.
But wait a sec. I don't mean the "Bobby Brown" of recent memory. Let's time travel to the '80s. Back then, Brown left the highly successful boy band, New Edition, much like Timberlake split from *NSYNC. Brown's first album wasn't nearly as successful as Timberlake's first, but neither album adequately expressed the individuality of either star. Brown followed his debut with the mega hit, Don't Be Cruel (1988). While Don't Be Cruel relied heavily on the "La Face" (L.A. Reid and Babyface) formula for making hits, the album included major contributions from New Jack Swing architect Teddy Riley. On FS/LS, Bobby Brown's Teddy Riley translates into the beatmaker we like to call Timbaland.
The energy in Brown's '80s success was fueled by his newfound bravado as much as by catchy tunes -- "My Prerogative" sums it up pretty well. While Brown might have been more forceful with his vocals, Timberlake's machismo receives a similar spotlight, most notably on the single "Sexyback" ("I'm bringin' sexy back / you motherf*ckers watch how I attack") and "Sexy Ladies" ("I'm tellin' you now…I got sexy ladies"), with Timberlake's "Damn Girl" taking the place of Brown's "Tenderoni" and Timberlake's "My Love" working like Brown's "Rock Wit'cha".
Like Brown, Timberlake isn't shy about trying new things. Where Bobby Brown added hip-hop flavor to his style, Timberlake employs the same strategy on "Sexyback" (the fraternal twin of another Timbaland tune, Nelly Furtado's "Promiscuous"), "My Love" (featuring T.I.), and JT's version of crunk on "Chop Me Up" (featuring Three 6 Mafia). It is kinda funny to hear Three 6 Mafia shouting out, "Justin Timberlake!" as if it's the "hardcore" thing to do, but at least Timberlake wasn't trying to play it safe. Instead, he opted for a slightly different angle.
It's in these moments of experimentation that FutureSex/LoveSounds offers its most compelling material: the title track's vocal distortion, the ingenuity of incorporating strings and violins in "Lovestoned" and "What Goes Around…", the storybook "Losing My Way", the groovy synthesizers that threaten to overpower JT's vocals in "Summer Love", the interludes attached to songs that act as reprises, encores, and preludes. Even when these experiments don't provide complete satisfaction, they at least show us Timberlake and Timbaland are trying to find the right vibration for our young hero.
The exceptions would be his forays into Minneapolis' purple territory, namely "Sexy Ladies" and "Until the End of Time". Both songs are album highlights, but they don't seem to strive for the same level of innovation as other songs in the set. "Sexy Ladies" comes off like an unreleased recording from the Time. Its straightforward funk groove is reminiscent of Prince's "Sexy Dancer", with Timbaland chanting "Sexy Sexy Sexy, walk that body, talk that body" in place of Prince's "Sexy Dancer / I want your body / want your body". At the same time, "Until the End of Time", the title of which recalls the first line of Prince's "Adore", has Prince's paisley stamp all over it, particularly when it comes to that "When Doves Cry"-like percussion. The result is much like Gwen Stefani's song "Luxurious" (from Love Angel Music Baby), which samples the Isley Brother's "Between the Sheets". The difference, though, is that Timberlake's jam isn't a sample -- it's either a tribute or a humongous bite.
Everyone, including Timberlake, plays the Prince similarities off as coincidences. Yet, every time I hear "Until the End of Time", I picture young Timberlake pulling a Tom Cruise from Mission: Impossible: hanging upside down from the ceiling in Prince's music vault, trying to download one of Prince's weird, dove-feather beats before Prince can get through his own security checkpoints and eye scan. Just admit it; that purple sound is no accident. As enjoyable as the songs are, the outright mimicry undermines Timberlake's attempt to carve out his own niche. And isn't that why Timberlake is grinding his heels into a disco ball on the album cover -- to show, visually, his intention to stake his claim and move forward musically? Clearly, he's not there yet, as he relies on Timbaland's vocals more than he should. Perhaps Timbaland plans to jumpstart his own passion for being a microphone fiend. Maybe he'll return with his rapping partner Magoo.
As for FutureSex/LoveSounds, you can tell Timberlake's working hard to get it right. In the process, he's been ruling the charts and, ultimately, raising the stakes for his competitors.