By Emily Eveland
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Justin Timberlake, in the great rock 'n' roll tradition, is a Memphis mama's boy (he's from Millington, but that's not far from Memphis). His father was a bluegrass musician, his stepfather a banker. About that we might say that he grew up with the banker, and that his music suggests that the nature-versus-nurture argument will always be won by fence sitters: On one hand, he's a natural, a born star with magic up his close-fitting sleeves; on the other, he's calculating, efficient, not exactly dull, but not exactly interesting, either.
That doesn't necessarily make his music dull. It's often just the opposite. His best singles vanquish inertia, alter moods, turn routine bowling frames into mnemonic souvenirs, and do strange things to the air. A few months ago I was taken with the idea that the perforated synthesizer hook from "My Love" was emitting a very pleasant citrus aroma. It's true that this thought occurred to me 30 seconds after peeling a tangerine. At the time that fact seemed circumstantial.
But the personality Timberlake projects on his records offers few surprises and fewer mysteries. "These dudes don't know me from Adam and Eve," he boasts on "Sexy Ladies," a disco brushfire from last fall's FutureSex/LoveSounds, his second solo album. The song offers no rhythmic justification for adding "and Eve" to the cliché—and Timberlake is pretty sure-footed around cliché—so for a while I thought (wished, perhaps) that he was embracing the androgyny common to many of his musical heroes. And maybe he is. But probably it's just a solecism. The guy's laid-back with words, as we'll see, and if he's interested in fucking around with gender and sexuality, he's doing it cautiously.
Yes, there's the bondage-and-discipline imagery from "SexyBack," but it's from the Janet Jackson school, designed not to present alt-sex in some interesting light, but to distance the artist from nagging good-kid roots. It has all the force of being tied up with tissue paper and spanked with a sack of marshmallows. I like the beat, though.
To steal a joke from an anonymous poster on Washingtonpost.com, FutureSex does effectively accompany RightNowSex, and there's outsized sensuality in the falsetto Timberlake applies to "My Love," but on the whole the album is sexy in the way that female runway models are sexy to gay men. Desire doesn't ooze from its (figurative) grooves, or if it does, I wasn't in the room just then.
The album, however, is legitimately adventurous in other ways. It doesn't touch on biological daddy's bluegrass, but it does have the feel of a Southern jam session, one that just happens to be a digital overdub hootenanny as well. Timberlake told Rolling Stone that the trio he forms with Timbaland and Nate "Danja" Hills (Timbaland's current aide de camp) works like a garage band. That's just spin, but the album is loose and somewhat freewheeling, especially on its various preludes and interludes, which range from clever variations on the core material to nearly realized songs. Best of all the 'ludes is "I Think She Knows," a sweetly droning orchestral guitar tune reportedly inspired by Interpol. As it happily turns out, when a Michael Jackson devotee looks to Interpol, the best ever Coldplay song results. Whether or not Timberlake, Timbaland, and Hills are the world's richest garage band, the looseness recedes when the trio is separated. Ironically, the least "organic" sounding tune on the record is "Another Song (All Over Again)," an uneventful Al Green-y ballad produced by famous naturalist Rick Rubin.
FutureSex, as the above references to Interpol and Al Green indicate, draws from various wells, but according to one popular take, it finds Timberlake shifting his polestars from Michael Jackson to Prince. Justified, Timberlake's solo debut, which was modeled in part after Off the Wall, spawned videos featuring moves copped from Jackson's dancing machine, and used a handful of backing tracks rejected by MJ. There was something strangely revelatory about how Timberlake (and, around the same time, Usher) borrowed from Jackson. For years Jackson's influence was at once pervasive and unspoken—too obvious to mention, too indirect to credit, too uncomfortable to acknowledge, or too extramusical to mean much to those not counting the beans or choreographing the videos. By making the influence explicit—ripping off pop's Lear directly—Timberlake and his collaborators trickily seemed to lead the mainstream by taking its largest, yet strangely under-trafficked, thoroughfare.
Jackson's shadow still looms over the new album, particularly over its airy harmonies, but indeed on FutureSex Timberlake's falsetto is often more Princely than Jacksonian, and there's the emphasis on the S. part of D.M.S.R., discussed earlier. For "Until the End of Time," Timbaland, in atypically derivative fashion, offers off-kilter drum tones and programming lifted pretty much wholesale from "The Beautiful Ones." There are lines like "Don't need no Maybelline, 'cause you're a beauty queen/Don't need no L'Oréal/'Cause bitch you're bad as hell," a child of "Irresistible Bitch" and the "Don't need to watch Dynasty to have an attitude" line from "Kiss," except that the offspring is neither funny nor incongruous.
Timberlake's lyrics are a general problem, serviceably seductive, devotional, or heartbroken at best, shopworn most of the time, seriously stupid at worst. Nate Hills told Rolling Stone that Timberlake improvised many of the album's lyrics right there in front of the microphone. Hills offered this inside dope as further proof of the singer's genius, though it might have made more sense to present it as an apology. The lyrics are certainly underdeveloped, though alas they don't bear the loopiness that often attends extemporaneous rhyming. "Losing My Way," the album's anti-drug saga, begins with the line, "Hi, my name is Bob and I work at my job," apparently deemed more engrossing and vivid than "Hi, my name is Pete, and I walk on two feet." Later in the same song Timberlake sings, "I remember where I was when I got my first buzz," but doesn't bother to name the place, presumably because he didn't work that part out.
No doubt I'm asking too much of Timberlake. I should be content with his music's canyon-like tonal range—from Timbaland's bass lines and pulses, lower than the proverbial snake's belly in a wagon-wheel rut, to Timberlake's skyscraper high notes—and not look for consistent emotional or conceptual depth to match. And maybe I'm letting Timberlake's good taste lead me to unreasonable comparisons. The difference between Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake is the difference between genius and talent, between studying Jackie Wilson backstage and waiting to sing "When a Man Loves a Woman" for Mouseketeer scouts, between having a preternatural command of the African American vocal tradition and having a good shot at matching Daryl Hall in the blue-eyed soul pantheon. But I'm a crazy loyalist who thinks Invincible, Jackson's 2001 album, is pretty good, and I don't want to get all Lloyd Bentsen on JT. Every decade deserves its Daryl Hall, and Timbaland is a much better Oates.