Musicians at the center of multimillion-dollar machines have two choices: ensure that the G's keep coming in no matter what it does to their art and souls, or repay the public with the gift of genuine inspiration. There's little doubt 'NSync were assembled for profit, and that obviousness has paradoxically set up a struggle in the members' psyches to prove themselves as more than quickie cash-in artists. No Strings Attached answered that yearning with a juiced-up version of their debut's Scandinavian-grown pop, but Celebrity goes several steps further outside the proven boy-band sphere.
It's not a totally radical departure: Much of Celebrity merely ups the ante on No Strings Attached's tentative attempts to integrate techno into their R&B pop. With its Pac-Man theme and dance-y squeaks, "The Game Is Over" echoes the sounds and sentiments of the last album's edgiest cuts. Producer Brian McKnight stands in for Richard Marx on "Selfish"; the Neptunes and Rodney Jerkins take Teddy Riley's place on "Girlfriend" and the title track. Swedish teen-pop-factory kingpin Max Martin and pupils contribute "Tell Me, Tell Me . . . Baby" and "Just Don't Tell Me That," and it doesn't take a psychic to guess that they sound like every great Britney-Backstreet-'N Sync smash, even if their contradictory titles cry out for a psychologist to tell us what they mean.
Although they've always flashed perkier smiles and danced more enthusiastically than that other boy band, 'N Sync ultimately set themselves apart with the anxiety in their voices. Where their peers have become unflatteringly self-assured, JC Chasez and particularly Justin Timberlake grow progressively more distressed. Michael Jackson went through a similar transformation when he went solo, and much of Celebrity shares that icon's popularity-bred defensiveness and fear of lecherous love. It's a drag to hear rich superstars lash out at anonymous gold diggers, and those attacks temper the nervous thrills of "See Right Through You" and other cutting cuts. But the feistiness also suits the album's jumpier, faster grooves. Underground club-music hero Brian "BT" Transeau goes overground with Timberlake for the beat-driven first single, "Pop," and unsung remixers Riprock 'n' Alex G go even further with Chasez on "The Two of Us" and "Up Against the Wall." The smooth-and-schizo two-step dance beats on those tracks are a perfect fit for 'N Sync's fearful joy. Along with Nelly Furtado and Mandy Moore, 'N Sync are paving a new high road for teen pop's future. Who else will join them?