Justin Timberlake, More Purr Than Growl
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Justin Timberlake obviously envisioned "FutureSex/LoveSounds," his terrific new album, as a one-man (and a lot of machines) dissertation on carnal knowledge. But the "sex" part of the title requires a suspension of disbelief. Timberlake, the most cornfed and harmless of pop stars, is about as likely to project an air of dangerous sexuality as he is to knock over a convenience store with Screech from "Saved by the Bell."
The album is divided into two inexact parts. The "FutureSex" tracks are mostly electro-pop and R&B club songs with a hypermodern feel (which figures, since they come from, you know, the future). Most of the "LoveSounds" tracks are romantic ballads that require Timberlake to transform from a club-haunting, champagne-swilling layer-downer of beats and admirer of butts to a besotted lover, ring in hand. It's a tricky transition, from lothario to boyfriend, that Timberlake doesn't always quite manage. (Prince couldn't pull it off, either.)
Timberlake is more convincing as a boyfriend, but more entertaining as a cad: The first five "Future" tracks may be the best 25 minutes of music released this year. They're a riot of undulating bass lines and over-the-top effects: the beat box that underpins "SexyBack" and "Love Stoned/I Think She Knows"; the languid beats, carnival keyboards and harmonies of the T.I. collaboration "My Love."
Timberlake manages not to be swallowed whole by the never-ending parade of producers -- most notably "Promiscuous" architect Timbaland -- guest stars and enough special effects to humble George Lucas, but he tries harder than he should have to. Along with fellow former Mouseketeer Christina Aguilera, Timberlake is currently the brightest star in an indifferent universe, with a pretty great blue-eyed soul voice that's too often swaddled in layers of fuzz or wasted in an overused, Michael-Jackson-but-higher falsetto.
The ballads put him to slightly wiser use. "Losing My Way" is a high-fiber number about a small-town crystal meth addict that sounds like what would happen if, say, Timbaland produced an episode of "Dateline." The comparatively spartan "(Another Song) All Over Again" finds Timberlake channeling Donny Hathaway, accompanied by a tentative piano. It's so plainly geared toward quieting the few remaining Timberlake deniers that it might as well come with an Ask Me About My Impressive Range sticker attached. "What Goes Around Comes Around," bristly and ungallant and irresistible, aggressively evokes "Cry Me a River," the superlative exercise in Britney evisceration that was the high point of his solo debut, "Justified."
With the exception of the clunky Will.I.Am collaboration "Damn Girl," it's hard to imagine how "FutureSex/LoveSounds" could have been any better, though when it comes to, um, randiness, Timberlake is still no Prince, and lines such as "Back up some more / And let me take it off" have the same sexual charge as a proposition from a Care Bear. Someone might want to remind Timberlake that sexiness is like humility, or executive privilege. The more you assert it, the less it means.