Last November, Timberlake entered the brand-new Virginia Beach, Virginia, studio of hip-hop producer Timbaland, who had produced four tracks on Justified, the 2002 solo debut that buried Timberlake's image as a pansy boy-bander. Justified was musically assured and surprisingly sexual, opening with the live-in-the-studio Latin funk of the Neptunes-produced "Señorita," with its leering tag, "Gentlemen, good night/Ladies, good morning." Another Neptunes track, "Rock Your Body," became a hipster guilty pleasure (a chorus that referred to sharing a joint – "The air is thick, it's smelling right/So you blast to the left and you sail to the right" – helped as well), but it was the Timbaland track "Cry Me a River" (along-with a video that made it clear it was his kiss-off to Britney Spears) that sparked sales topping out at 4 million.
Timberlake had been working at fame from age eleven, when he lost on Star Search in 1992. By the time he was twenty – when 'NSync's No Strings Attached sold 2.4 million copies its first week out, likely to stand as an all-time record – he had it pretty well covered. Then came a quest to make credible music, music that mattered to him. That took another three years, but the credibility issue was under control by August 2003, when Drew Barrymore and her boyfriend, Strokes drummer Fabrizio Moretti, turned up for one of Timberlake's club shows – word-of-mouth gigs that followed arena concerts and featured Tiraberlake on keyboard guiding his crack band through funk and soul jams.
Timberlake was better than twelve years into a career that had gotten him paid and laid. He was also twenty-three and at a crossroads. "I was burnt," he says. "My dad was like, 'You should enjoy your life – one day you're gonna be my age and you'll want to do things that you should have done when you had the body to do them.' I was like, 'Damn, you're right!'" He spent twenty-four months just watching the wheels go round. (By the way, John Lennon is his favorite songwriter, Donny Hathaway his vocal idol.) "When I took two years off, I was like, 'Oh, shit! This is what the world looks like at a regular pace,'" he says. "That was amazing for me. Just the little things, like sitting home on the weekend or making a Sunday tee time. Play golf, then come back home, have a beer and call it a day."
At his local clubs, Sherwood in L.A. and Spring Creek in Tennessee, Timberlake worked his way down to a two handicap, and he indulged in his other athletic passions, barreling down mountains on his snowboard and surfing in Hawaii. Usually, Diaz was at his side.
But work came knocking. Timberlake took another star turn, as the host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live in October 2003. He displayed serious acting chops in sendups of Ashton Kutcher and Jessica Simpson (in drag), as well as a memorable turn as an omelet pitchman ("I dressed up in yellow tights like a fucking omelet," he says of his commitment to his craft). The killer was Timberlake teaming with Jimmy Fallon on The Barry Gibb Talk Show. "He has great comic timing," says Fallon. "We were all impressed. We were about to go live – we had our backs to the audience – and Justin said to me, 'Remember the harmony on that one part. Seriously! Remember it.' I'll never forget that – I was nervous I wouldn't nail it. I felt like Joey Fatone – I mean, I was getting Fatone pressure."
After the show, Timberlake was inundated with acting offers. "SNL was like a playground," he says. "And the reason I got into film is because I needed something inspiring, but more intimate, that I didn't have to do in front of 18,000 people every night." During his "downtime," Timberlake tackled four films: Edison Force, which headed straight for the video rack, and three movies out next year – Black Snake Moan, Southland Tales and Alpha Dog, where Timberlake stars alongside Bruce Willis and Lukas Haas in the complex role of Frankie Ballenbacher, a murderous, weed-slinging gangbanger with a soft side. "Justin's got such an easy way of moving," says Alpha Dog director Nick Cassavetes, "much like a young Travolta in Saturday Night Fever." And regarding his future on the big screen? "The kid's got a rocket ship tied to his ass," says Cassavetes. "One day, I hope to be his assistant."
A year ago, Timberlake got the urge to record again. "I knew that I needed something new," he says. "I wanted to take more of a chance – experiment." He was also spurred on by the sad state of pop radio. "I said to myself, 'I don't want anything I do to sound like that.' I just didn't think it was that good."
No sooner had he gotten back into a musical mind-set than the big shots at his record label, Jive, were up his ass for new tunes. "When I started messin' around on this album, Barry Weiss [president of Jive Records] said to me, 'When's it gonna be done?'" says Timberlake. "I said, 'I don't know, it could take a year.'" Work on FS/LS started in December 2005. Timberlake moved at a leisurely pace: a few weeks in the studio, a few weeks off. (He likes to joke that he suffers from ADD, hence the cushy schedule.) He did a stint writing with his friend Matt Morris, whom he first met when they were both on The New Mickey Mouse Club in 1993. And he produced a track with Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas. (Timberlake sang the hook on the Peas' breakthrough hit, "Where Is the Love?") Then Timberlake turned to Timbaland.
"I asked him if he could do five or six more 'Cry Me a Rivers,'" he says. "Tim is the kind of producer who doesn't back down from that kind of challenge." On a cold day in November, JT arrived in Virginia Beach. That night, with no lyrics, melody or plan, Timberlake, Timbaland and the producer's protégé Nate "Danja" Hills created a classic called "What Goes Around."
The song started with Hills' keyboards and Timbaland's relatively straightforward drum pattern, which were layered with a recurring sitar figure, sublime strings and hooks that pile atop one another only to cascade into the chorus. Timberlake never writes down his lyrics, so he attacked verses, bridges and choruses in the vocal booth when inspiration struck. "Everybody knows he's talented, but this dude wrote that whole album without touching a pen or paper," Hills says. "I'm like, 'What type of shit is this?' I've heard stories about Jay-Z or Biggie doing that, but I've never heard of a singer doing that. I think it's some sort of superpower."
With lyrics like "I was ready to give you my name/Thought it was me and you, baby/And now it's all just a shame," What Goes Around" seems like the sequel to "Cry Me a River," a final toss of dirt on the grave of his ten-year relationship with Britney. But Timberlake says that unlike on Justified, the lyrics on FutureSex/LoveSounds "are not autobiographical in any way – ["What Goes Around"] was written about somebody else." By which he means he drew on a friend's experience. "But I'd be lying if I said I didn't have the personal experience to, you know, relay the message," he admits.
The music Timberlake gravitates toward these days – the only place he sees "real songwriting" and forward movement – is rock & roll. (The drony guitar interlude that follows the song "LoveStoned" was inspired by Interpol.) "Everything else has a gimmick," he says. "These days, the names are bigger than the songs – people want to see pictures, videos, cameos, collaborations, fame association . . . It's like some übercool party that you can't get into." He thinks for a second. "Now, I know my name is on that guest list, but that's not what inspires me.
There are a resurgence of bands that just want to be who they are. I love the fucking Strokes – 'You Only Live Once,' I couldn't get that fucking guitar riff out of my head for three months – the Killers, Arcade Fire, Radiohead. And you gotta give it up for Coldplay. Those are the bands that I'm into."
FutureSex/LoveSounds resembles vintage Prince much more than the Killers or Arcade Fire, but for "SexyBack," Timberlake was going for a David Bowie vibe. "I said, 'Let's take a stab at Bowie or David Byrne and see what we come up with,'" he says. "There's no doubt that it's a club record," he adds, "but there's a rock sensibility about it. It reminds me of 'Rebel Rebel.'" He also likens writing with Timbaland and Hills to a garage-band-trio mentality – essentially a drummer (Timbaland), a hook man (Hills) and a singer.
He has said more than once that his goal with FS/LS was "to capture moments" with a vivid, raw, off-the-cuff sound. "I don't really think I'm bringing sexy back," he says. "But when a twenty-eight-year-old male or female is standing in a club in New York City at 2:30 in the morning and that fuckin' song comes on, I want them to feel like they are. That's what music should do. When I was a kid and I heard 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand,' I wanted to find someone's hand to hold. When I listen to 'Hotel California,' I feel like I'm on coke. Sort of."
In the course of just three weeks, more genre-bending tracks piled up in Virginia Beach – "Sexy Ladies," "My Love" (a rocktechno ballad that took two hours to imagine and execute) and "SexyBack" – and the T word began flying around the studio. "We were buggin' out, like, 'Are we creating the next Thriller? " says Hills. "It was so crazy how we was coming up with these songs back to back to back." Timbaland agrees it's a blockbuster, calling FS/LS Thriller 2006.
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
MUSIC 9 Classic Devo Videos
OLYMPICS 18 Epic Opening Ceremonies