.

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).

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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