Justin Timberlake

     Justified (Jive, 2002)
      Future Sex/Love Sounds (Jive, 2006)

By the time ex–'N Sync heartthrob Timberlake went solo in 2002, the teen-pop movement had been heading toward the cliff of adulthood, with each adorable entertainer either falling or making it to the other side. Britney Spears completed the jump by a hair; LeAnn Rimes, we're glad you wore that parachute. But with Justified, Timberlake and producers the Neptunes (with Timbaland in a sidecar) straight-up vaulted over the canyon and Timberlake became the biggest male pop star in the world.

The Neptunes' brilliant, impertinent, full-body funk is, for the most part, what stays with you from Justified; their songs, spacious and shot through with ecstatic ahhhs, outshine their neighbors on the album. In "Like I Love You," a nasty funk rhythm on loud, live drums shares the space with a tiny guitar strum and Timberlake's breathy, studied tenor; it's minimalism influenced by Michael Jackson. The album's lyrics, similarly, invoke scenes of the tenderest understanding here, of full-on booty calls there. By most other measures, Timbaland's contributions (especially "Cry Me a River") are on a high level; in this context, they're a bit dull and claustrophobic.

In the four years between Justified and its follow-up, Timberlake went from pop star to a kind of superhero playboy, cultivating an image that covered all bases: stylish GQ icon, affable Saturday Night Live host, credible hip-hop guest vocalist, aspiring movie actor who never really embarrasses himself, guy who exposed Janet Jackson's nipple on national TV and got away with it. On Future Sex/Love Sounds he emerged fully formed as a suit-clad, metrosexual adult — cool enough to get contributions from both rapper T.I. and hipster photog Terry Richardson. Produced almost entirely by Timbaland and Danja, Future Sex/Love Sounds is a formidible combo of retro-gloss and future-funk. Timberlake skates over these club bangers in 100 ways, seething through a mouthful of distortion on "Sexyback," crooning a falsetto love-in-this-club valentine on "My Love," and dropping a Southern rap mash note in "Chop Me Up." He even manages a Sign O' The Times-style story ballad on "Losing My Way." Timberlake completely dominates the seven-minute "Cry Me A River" sequel "What Goes Around…/…Comes Around," on which Timbaland surrounds his vocals with Turkish lutes, electro-bubbles and orchestral sweeps. His confidence and wide-reaching swagger made him, at the very least, the only pop star in America who can say "I'm bringing sexy back" with a straight face.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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