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Justin Timberlake: The New King of Pop

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It's just before 11 P.M. When Timberlake arrives at Rendezvous, a famous Memphis barbecue joint around the corner from the New Daisy Theatre, where rehearsals for Justin: Down Home in Memphis have just wrapped. A series of banquet tables are lined up in rows in the restaurant's back room, but Timberlake's party needs only two: one for the grownups and one for the rest of us – Timberlake; Diaz; his best friend, Trace Ayala; Trace's girlfriend, Elisha Cuthbert, of TV's 24 ; and Timberlake's childhood friend Matt Morris (who was actually with Justin when he sang "The Earring Song" for his parents on that Hawaiian beach). When I deign to ask Timberlake if he's sampled the food at Virgil's, a New York barbecue restaurant, he and Ayala offer a lecture on why beef ribs suck and how eating them in Memphis would border on the sacrilegious.

Timberlake exhibits a strange combination of pride and embarrassment about the South. More than once, he puts on an exaggerated drawl to make a self-deprecating remark about being unsophisticated or ignorant because he's a Southerner. It's an odd concession: Though he got much of his education on the road with tutors and calls himself a narcoleptic reader ("I literally fall asleep"), Timberlake is bright, well-spoken and a keenly attentive conversationalist. "Maybe I'm just a good listener," he demurs.

The pride, meanwhile, comes into play whenever Timberlake talks about the culture of the South, especially the music of his upbringing. "I grew up listening to country music," he says. "I listened to things that were out on the radio, but also my grandfather taught me about Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and the importance that they had and how they were the ambassadors of country music."

When he started performing as a little boy, Timberlake sang country and gospel music. "When the family found out I could sing," he says, "they were dressing me into country or gospel, because that's what was big in the area." At age eleven he began hearing blues music and became intrigued by how the primordial stomp of the blues had influenced all the other stuff he was listening to. "I started wondering how the blues got started," he says. "But I was listening to Brian McKnight, because he was on the radio. That's when I got into rhythm and blues – Al Green, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye."

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Al Green, By Justin Timberlake

Timberlake's parents divorced when he was two, and when he would visit his biological father, Randy, they would play albums by the Eagles and Bob Seger. "I remember I listened to 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' by Queen, over and over. I locked myself in my room and turned off the lights and listened to it for two days straight. I'd only come out for food or water. I wanted to dissect every part of it."

But if little Justin had such varied tastes in music, you wouldn't have known it from the music he's made with 'N Sync. "I was so anxious to be involved with music," he says. "Not that I'm speaking badly about anything I've done, but I just didn't know any better."

The million-dollar question, then, is whether Timberlake will stay on his own, or go back to the boy-band thing. Since he began work on Justified last year, he has cagily avoided discussing how his solo career might affect the future of 'N Sync. He has tended to say, diplomatically, that "those guys will always be my brothers." OK, so JC Chasez had a minor radio hit with "Blowin' Me Up (With Her Love)," and Joey Fatone was adorable in his small role in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Lance Bass, like, tried to go into outer space or something, and Chris Kirkpatrick – wait, which one is he again? There is no doubt that Timberlake has outgrown 'N Sync. Even he seems to be aware of it now.

"I think that whole time [with 'N Sync], I was living in some small shape of oblivion," he says. "I thought, 'They're just putting that teen-pop label on us because they don't understand.' I look back now and realize that that's exactly what it was. Like, why did I think it was something else? When I realized that, I did two things. One, I said, 'I don't want to do teen pop again.' And two, 'I don't want to ever not realize something for what it is.' I wasn't able to look at the bigger picture and realize that there was this whole thing going on, this whole movement, like, Disneyworld is taking over. And looking back on it now, how fucking frightening is that? I've had some of the greatest experiences with those guys, but do I think that what I've done with [Justified] is ten times better than anything 'N Sync has ever done? Yes, I do. But I'm a cocky bastard."

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