One for the Ages
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
When Justin Timberlake trotted out hip-hop talent (Clipse, Timbaland, Pharrell, Bubba Sparxxx) on “Justified,” he was nakedly using them for credibility. He had yet to prove himself as a solo artist and to live down the Britney-boy-toy and boy-band associations. The Michael Jackson-imitating 2002 album earned him not only the title “the new king of pop” (bestowed by a 2003 Rolling Stone cover) but also loads of street cred: When Mr. Timberlake won the 2003 VMA for Best Male Video, Eminem and 50 Cent both stood up to applaud him.
Rappers figure even more prominently in “FutureSex/LoveSound” (Jive) — T.I., Clipse, Timbaland, Three 6 Mafia, Will.i.am — the difference is now it’s Mr. Timberlake lending them his credibility. Mr. Timberlake is sure of himself, even full of himself: “You’re talking to one of the greatest. … It might sound cocky, but is it really cocky if you know that it’s true?” he asks on “SexyLadies.” His confidence is justified: He’s just made one of the best pop albums in recent memory.
Well, three-fourths of one anyway. The first nine of his 12 tracks are jittery, stylish, synth-driven dance tunes. The triumph is as much Timbaland’s as Mr. Timberlake’s. The beats star in many of the songs, and tracks such as “SexyBack” — the ecstatic, NINsounding first single — feature Timba’s voice as prominently as Mr. Timberlake’s. Between this and his chart-topping work with Nelly Furtado, Timbaland has reclaimed his place atop the super-producer heap.
By all reports, the album was a true collaboration. “LoveStoned/I Think She Knows Interlude” shows just how fertile a one it is. The song mutates through a half-dozen sounds in the space of seven minutes. It starts with a beat comprised entirely of human beatbox sounds (judging from his performance at the recent VMAs, maybe even Mr. Timberlake’s own voice), then moves through zig zagging strings, a short section of funk guitar, minimalist percussion, emotive orchestra (reminiscent of the opening to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”), and finally two minutes of indie rock guitar and plaintive keyboard that sounds like a club-y version of Death Cab for Cutie.
“My Love” does more with much less. The beat, composed of stuttering astral-synth and one of those gleefully out-of-place voices Timbaland’s so fond of using (see Aaliyah’s “Are U That Somebody” or Mr. Timberlake’s own “Cry Me A River”), is an instant classic, like M83 meets Crazy Frog. Mr. Timberlake sounds great over it, but T.I. sounds even better. MCs should have a field day when this one hits the mix tape circuit.
From rubbing shoulders with so many rappers Mr. Timberlake has learned (or unlearned) a thing or two about courtship. He no longer begs or pleads, now he seduces and commands. On “SummerLove/Set the Mood Prelude” he comes on like a singsongy Slim Thug: “riding in the drop top with the top down saw you switchin’ lanes, girl / pull up to the red light lookin’ right come here let me get your name, girl / tell me where you from what you do what you like let me pick your brain, girl / and tell me how that got that pretty little face on that pretty little frame, girl.”
There are a few missteps. “Damn Girl”is cheesy 1970s soul with a cheesier rap by Black Eyed Pea Will.i.am. One of the album’s few ballads, “Until the End of Time” strays dangerously into ‘N Sync territory. And the only bit that works on “Chop Me Up,” a hamhanded attempt at Houston’s fashionable chopped-and-screwed sound, is the drop by Tennessee’s Three 6 Mafia, who rap over a static-y hard-core Dirty South beat that sounds like the handiwork of Shondrae “Bangladesh” Crawford.
“Losing My Way,” a song about a mechanic who loses his job and family because of crack addiction, sounds like late-period Michael Jackson. It doesn’t quite come off, but Mr. Timberlake gets points for trying a real narrative (and bonus points for marrying this particular narrative with a children’s chorus). “What Goes Around … / … Comes Around Interlude” is the continuation of an old story: the one that began on “Cry Me a River,” Mr. Timberlake’s breaking-and-entering breakup song with Britney. Now the philandering girl is the one getting played, and Mr. Timberlake can’t help rubbing it in: “I heard you found out / that he’s doing to you / what you did to me / ain’t that the way it goes,” he rapsings against a backdrop of astral keyboards and Gregorian chants near the song’s end.
Guided by Timbaland’s deft hand, the album flows like a well-crafted DJ set. Songs morph into preludes and interludes; instrumental parts carry over from one track to the next. This is the reason for all the ellipses and slashes in the song titles. It may seem pretentious — and it is — but Mr. Timberlake has earned his pretension. He’s making pop music for the ages.