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Justin Timberlake

FutureSex/LoveSounds (Jive Records)

Even though there's an endless appetite for radio-friendly music, pop-oriented artists as a rule eventually become bored with straightforward pop-music structures — a tradition that's been carried down from the Beatles to Christina Aguilera. And really, who can blame them? Even though it's one of the most difficult things to construct, the pop hit is also the most limiting, the tune they'll nearly always be requested to perform to the exclusion of (perhaps) more relevant work.

Monster boy-band 'N Sync mesmerized with "Bye Bye Bye" and "Tearin' Up My Heart" before embracing producers such as BT and the Neptunes on 2001's experimental, hip-hop-leaning Celebrity — which sold less than half of the previous year's No Strings Attached but earned them all-important cred.

This cred certainly helped towheaded 'N Sync figurehead Justin Timberlake when he went solo and released 2002's Justified. A slick disc paying homage to Michael Jackson, disco, soul, and modern hip-hop, the platter established the 25-year-old as a bona-fide pop star in his own right — even though (and likely because) it sounded like nothing else on the airwaves at the time.

Timberlake attempts to solidify his street rep further on the new FutureSex/LoveSounds, an obvious attempt to hang with pop's new kings, the hip-hop guys. Collaborators include Snoop Dogg, T.I., will.i.am, and Three 6 Mafia. Instead of sounding modern, however, Timberlake simply sounds outclassed.

The most frustrating thing, actually, is he's attempting to downplay his status as pop icon. Timberlake is the rare artist capable of creating killer ear candy that's progressive and accessible; on Sounds, he seems reluctant to acknowledge this. Take "SexyBack": It's certainly distinctive and maddeningly catchy, but with minimalist techno drip-drops, squelching tracks, and random Timbaland interjections ("Get your sexy on!"), its appeal is gradual, not immediate. Not helping is the chorus, which camouflages Timberlake's voice with distortion and a slightly menacing tone, eschewing the warm falsetto that made him so popular.

However, the bigger problem with "SexyBack" — the song's lack of hooks and dynamics — plagues much of Sounds. Timberlake's pop-song deconstructions are simply boring; most tunes just don't go anywhere interesting once they've established a rhythmic and lyrical pattern. "Sexy Ladies" employs synth swerves and a loping funk-bass reminiscent of Prince, but wastes it on almost-bored vocals. "My Love" boasts a guest spot by T.I. yet features stuttering beats that repeat like a cartoonish (and annoying) eight-bit Nintendo game. And the Three 6 Mafia/Timbaland collab "Chop Me Up" limps along painfully because of its generic, stale-sounding track and shout-outs.

This isn't to say there aren't interesting moments: "LoveStoned" is a string-laden disco-tango driven by panting beat-boxing, while the interlude "Let Me Talk to You" is a hyperactive Basement Jaxx-esque percussive collage. And the sublime kiss-off "What Goes Around..." (an obvious companion to Justified's "Cry Me a River") is probably the finest ballad Timberlake has ever sung, a twisted spiral of vengeance and melancholy driven by billowing strings and melt-away harmonies.

Timberlake's album goes straight for the loins; subtlety need not apply. The fabulous title track — a sonic cousin to Nelly Furtado's "Promiscuous Girl" and by far the best song on Sounds — is pure sex, thanks to a liquid synth-funk backline that rolls in the hay with writhing rhythms and Timberlake's ear-nibbling pillow talk: "You know what you want, yeah/And that makes you just like me/See, everybody says you're hot, baby/But can you make it hot for me?"

Yet Sounds isn't sure whether it wants to be the attentive boyfriend or the leering sketchbot. On the will.i.am-featuring "Damn Girl" — where Timberlake either sings the titular phrase like a glitzy soul man or sputters it, eyes popping out of his head — one can't help but think of those dudes who hit on women at bars with "I am undressing you with my eyes" once-overs. "LoveStoned" features the unintentionally hilarious line "She looks like her mother/Except she got a little more ass," while tough-guy Timberlake boasts elsewhere, "I got sexy ladies/All over the floor." Okay, we get it: Ladies love them some Timberlake.

But despite its obsession with lust and desire, Sounds is missing a curious sense of fun and spontaneity, two traits that made Justified such a (non)guilty pleasure. Artistic credibility doesn't have to equal boring; pop music isn't a serious endeavor. Heck, just listen to "Pose," a goofy faux-funk duet with Snoop Dogg that's hilariously sleazy/cheesy. The lovably lecherous tag-team duo JT and Snoop are amateur photographers trying to persuade women to pose for 'em; high jinks ensue as Timberlake coaxes one to "Pose for my camera/Looking like a model" as Snoop directs, "Head, shoulders, feet, and toes .../Go ahead, babygirl, cheesy smile!"

Completely ridiculous? Yes. Rather sexist? Undoubtedly. But it's also Timberlake loosening up and tapping into his less serious side — and as a pop-music innovator, that's just how we like him. Annie Zaleski

 
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