They started rehearsing with a guy named Jason, but when he couldn't quite cut the mustard, Timberlake phoned his vocal coach back in Tennessee for a recommendation and found Lance Bass (pronounced like the fish) of Clinton, Mississippi. Bass, every bit the congenial Southern gentleman, was well prepared. "I started singing in church," the twenty-year-old says in his deep, resonant voice. "My best friends and I were in a group called the Showstoppers that traveled all around the state, singing songs by Mississippi artists." The former jock ("Now I can't play anything worth a crap") was ecstatic to get the call from Timberlake and hopped a plane to Orlando for the tryout. "I didn't think I'd ever get the chance to do something like this," he says. "The opportunity is just not there in Mississippi."
Bass became the new bass, but there were moniker troubles. The group name had been coined by Timberlake's mother when Jason was still in the group. She came up with 'N Sync – her description of their singing – using the last letter of each member's first name. So for promotion's sake, Lance became Lansten. With the lineup set, the group pulled in favors from former Mouse Club engineers to record a demo. They landed a deal in Germany, spent a year in Europe and Asia – and the rest is shrieking-fan-laden, diamond-studded history.
'N Sync sweated out the last year waiting for their strings to be cut and their record to be released, but right now they've put the album on hold for one man: She'kspere, the Grammy-nominated producer responsible for TLC's "No Scrubs" and Destiny's Child's "Bills Bills Bills." At Jive's suggestion, the band has hit the studio to record one last song, "It Makes Me Ill," an uptempo rant about an ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, which will replace a ballad. Sample "ill" lyric: "His style is wack/Clothes are bad/C' mon, girl/Let him go/Want you back!"
On a sunny and humid Orlando afternoon, She'kspere sits at the mixing board in Pare Studios, looking like Puff Daddy's doppelgänger, complete with small, dark shades, black sweat clothes and a large platinum cross. All of the boys will show up today and well into tomorrow to finish their vocals, after which Chasez and Timberlake will work with She'kspere and the engineers until 5 or 6 A.M. on the final mix of the track.
First up in the vocal booth is Chris Kirkpatrick. He's wearing a red Fubu T-shirt and a floppy black hat, and he's gargling some tea in hopes of soothing a hard-partying weekend's worth of gravelly throat. It's not helping. On his first take, the fella responsible for the helium-high parts of 'N Sync's five-part harmony sounds like a chipmunk with the flu.
"That was so good," She'kspere chides, "that I think we'll erase it."
Eventually, Kirkpatrick nails a passable take and finishes off with a big belch that resounds in the control room. "Is that all I'm doin'?" he asks incredulously, throwing down the headphones and then giving everyone a just-shittin'-ya grin as he leaves. A few clicks of the mouse later, Kirkpatrick's voice comes back through the speakers doubled and digitally sweetened. It's smoother and stronger, and She'kspere is satisfied.
Timberlake comes into the control room, and She'kspere plays the mix for him. He begins to sing along beautifully with the blasting backing track, ad-libbing and moving in time with Chasez, who jumps around jerkily behind him. Fatone is across the room, asleep on a couch. "Let's go," the producer says. Timberlake heads into the recording booth. The engineer adds a vocoder sound to the microphone.
"Wait a minute," Timberlake says. "Do you be-leeive in life after love?" he belts, perfectly imitating Cher. "Did you like that?"
He improvises fluidly over the melodies, and the take goes well. "I can give it a little more Michael if you want," he tells She'kspere. "A little more 'ehh' at the end."
"It's hot like it is; it's gravy," the producer replies.
They play back the song's breakdown, which requires Timberlake to break down, calling to an ex-girlfriend, "Come back to me!" "Do that line real, real high," She'kspere says. "The little girls love that shit." He imitates a screaming crowd.
Timberlake wails through it like a pro, pulling out heartbroken emotion as if it's attached to the long Tommy Boy key ring hanging from his pocket.
"That was tight!" the producer hollers. "It don't need any more, any less."
Afterward, Timberlake needs some air. He heads out to his new BMW M Roadster, a purple-blue two-seat convertible that looks like it's moving even while parked. "I got a ticket last night at 2 A.M. after being at the studio," he says as we turn out of the lot. "I was doing eighty in a fifty, but no one was around. Hold on." He nails the pedal to the floor, and the car leaps to sixty miles an hour before the word on has left his mouth. He slows down only when the taillights of a car up ahead begin to fly toward the windshield. "I think there's a sense of reality that surrounds us," he says. "We don't try to make ourselves do cute, we just are who we are. We're boys. We burp and fart, just like boys."
Most other boys don't have the same toys, however. The Beemer is Timberlake's second car – his first was a Mercedes jeep. Fatone has a new black Cadillac truck and a house full of Superman memorabilia, a hobby he picked up because he liked the Superman insignia. He, Kirkpatrick, Fatone and Timberlake have also all built or bought houses in Orlando this year. "My living room is all white, like something from that Lauryn Hill video for 'Ex-Factor,' "Timberlake says. "There's a white grand piano, a white couch and a tapestry of knights on horses, and I have this beautiful acrylic statue of a nude man and woman that my friend got me. It's a beautiful piece: You shine a light on it and it shines right through. I've got a game room that we call the Jimmy Buffett room, because it's Orlando tropical, and I have a country kitchen to remind me of where I grew up. The bedroom is a whole safari motif, with a Japanese screen and a big sleigh bed."
Don't worry, they haven't spent it all. Most of the boys in the band have also started business ventures. Bass founded Freelance Management to develop country-music artists. "Country is something totally different that I had no clue about," he says. "My mom's involved, and my sister is an artist rep. It's nice to have your family involved with your business." Timberlake started the nonprofit Justin Timberlake Foundation to aid music and arts education in public schools. "I grew up in the boondocks, and there just wasn't a good musical program at school," he says. "I've thought about it a little bit – this and the whole Columbine incident. Music is another way for young minds and young bodies to express themselves, to find a way to get all those negative thoughts and energies out." Timberlake's mother, who left her job to manage her son back in his Mouse Club days, has founded a management company and developed a girl group, Innosense. "Our company is called Just in Time Entertainment, named after Justin," she says in a strong Southern accent. "I am so fascinated by the business – you get sucked in being around all that creativity, you know? After helping the boys, I was like, 'I can do this; this is my thing!' "
Chasez has been producing tracks for another all-girl group, Wild Orchid, while Kirkpatrick has started a music production/fashion line called Fuman Skeeto. "The name came up as a joke one night, real late," he says. "I was with a buddy, and one of the braids I used to wear had been cut off and had fallen by a big dead mosquito. It looked like it had a Fu Manchu mustache, so I called it a Fuman Skeeto. And the whole thing went from there." Kirkpatrick is currently producing Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Irrazary.
All of these grounding gestures are a response to the giddy effects of sudden fame. "It's been a little tough," Timberlake says. "There's definitely been times when I was totally depressed. But, you know, my spirituality helped me through that. I just feel like there's two of me: the public-eye me and the guy-who-brushes-his-teeth-twice-a-day me. They're getting along all right now. Sometimes brush-his-teeth doesn't get enough attention, but it's worth it."
"It's funny," Bass says about being on the other side of the fame fence. "You realize what hard work it is and that it's not glamorous. It's like going to Disney World, going into the tunnels and seeing Cinderella smoking a cigarette. The whole magic is gone."
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