Pictured on the cover of FutureSex/LoveSounds
, Justin Timberlake is in full-on Jason Statham Mode: well groomed, impeccably dressed… and putting his boot through a disco ball. Clearly there's a message being conveyed here.
He's shown up to the wrong wedding.
In all seriousness, the packaging is the first of many very deliberate indications that with his second full-length solo release, Timberlake has grown, matured, moved on, improved
. If as a title Justified
suggested not only that Justin had proved some sort of point but that maybe it was a little bit bad and dangerous too, the cover clearly depicted a teen idol, albeit a confused one. FutureSex/LoveSounds
leaves no room for such ambiguity. The title, coupled with image of JT, head shaven, doing a mischief to the relic of a bygone era, gives a clear message: out with the old, in with the new (and the sexy).
Great! Can he pull it off?
That's not necessarily a value judgement, the album itself just isn't as groundbreaking or futuristic as it's made out to be. Or rather, it's "futuristic" in the sense that Christina Aguilera's Back to Basics
is "retro"- it's a gimmick. Just as Christina's tribute to the "blue figures" and "jazz makers" turned out to be little more than a vague reference and Beyoncé's "masterpiece" was in fact nothing of the sort, hyperbole is the order of the day. FutureSex/LoveSounds
is contemporary in every sense of the word. But, hey, it works.
The Neptunes wrote and produced seven of Justified
's thirteen tracks, including three of the hit singles. Professional disagreements between Pharrell Williams and Timberlake's label Jive Records preclude he and partner Chad Hugo from appearing on the second album, but into their able shoes steps Tim Mosley, better known as Timbaland. Timba produced 'Cry Me a River' with Scott Storch, but he's here joined by his own beat protégé Danjahandz (Nate Hills); the pair produce ten of twelve tracks on the original album. So, there's still plenty of continuity. And no Brian McKnight, thank Christ.
Timbaland's recently hit his stride again (losing 130lbs. in five months tends to make walking a bit easier) after a couple of relatively fruitless years, writing, producing and performing in the hit single 'Promiscuous' from Nelly Furtado's Loose
. He applies a similar formula to FutureSex/LoveSounds
: heavy, deceptively complicated beats with a healthy respect for hi-hat, synths in place of the standard funk horn section and typically uninvolved but always interesting arrangements that make the boundaries between r&b and hip-hop seem far murkier than they really are.
The title track, which kicks off the album, plays like the bastard cousin of 'Rock Your Body', Leading with a drum and bass loop that intentionally recalls 'Another One Bites The Dust', it's a slow groove with an arrangement sparse and airy enough to allow the singer to lead the track in his trademark breathy style. 'LoveStoned' is the most progressive of the tracks on the album, offering duelling beat-boxes, a funky string sample that recalls Missy Elliott's 'Get Ur Freak On' and string samples straight out of a pre-war Disney movie before playing out with lush orchestral rock coda labelled 'I Think She Knows (Interlude)', pushing the running time well over seven minutes. There's a similarly hard-to-place Indian instrument in the beginning of 'What Goes Around…', but its early resemblance to 'Cry Me a River' fades as it too runs past the seven minute mark, dragging on in a way the pair managed to avoid with 'LoveStoned'.
The strongest tracks on FutureSex/LoveSounds
are the ones that play to the strengths of both Tims: Timbaland's strength is creating a solid groove that leaves him free to ornament the vocal track as he sees fit; Justin is an exceptional singer and shines when given the space to interpret his lyric, whether it be an awkward social commentary or an awkward sex scene. He shows the beginnings of a very versatile singer throughout; he's a more confident and self-assured singer than he was four years ago, his falsetto is more playful and overall less shaky and when he raps his flow is smooth and well-planned, though he knows not to overuse it. However, when both players aren't playing to their strengths, the result is cramped, cluttered arrangements which do neither any favours. More concisely, the result is 'SexyBack'.
This brings me back to my point about Justin misrepresenting the album: 'SexyBack' is a massive departure for Timberlake, not because it marks a new direction for him, but because it's the first time he's signed his name to something so utterly unlistenable. As a club single, is great- it swings effortlessly and it's catchy as fuck
- but in the club it should stay. 'Rock Your Body' worked because it was groovy enough to dance to but also melodic enough to sing along to- 'SexyBack' succeeds by brute force, throwing everything into a mix so chaotic one could almost forget it's been meticulously planned. And it's planned, right down the chorus (if you can call it that) which is little more than a loop of the Tims muttering incomprehensibles to each other. Justin claims he's "bringing sexy back" but we scarcely have time to talk him out of it.
Follow-up single 'My Love' (featuring a guest rap from T.I.) is either a brilliant example of what the pair can produce together or a spectacular failure to replicate 'SexyBack'- again the chorus is a repetitious trade-off between Tim and Justin, but it's spacious and melodic and the arrangement, though constantly changing, never overshadows the song. This stands in stark contrast to 'Chop Me Up,' 'SexyBack' and even Black Eyed Pea will.i.am's sole contribution 'Damn Girl,' in which Justin serenades his girl in falsetto with lines such as "you don't need no Maybelline" and other sexy product placements, and which would fall flat on its face were it not for the perfectly chosen jazz drum sample which underwrites it.
The ballads are another matter entirely. The slower tracks on Justified
, aside from the fact there was too many of them, were decent tracks in and of themselves, but Timberlake wasn't yet capable as a vocalist to make them any better than that. 'Losing My Way' and the Rick Rubin-produced '(Another Song) All Over Again' aim for HIStory-era Michael Jackson and actually achieve their aim; the former pushes a "don't smoke crack" agenda to boot, showing a hitherto unseen empathetic streak in Timberlake as he takes the place of a crack addict named Bob who's "got a problem with that white rock". The lyrics are still terrible, he begins by announcing "my name is Bob, I work at my job" (!), but it works because it has a strong melody and , thankfully, drops the crack pipe early on and embraces universal themes of alienation and insecurity with a cliché but jaw-dropping children's choir reprise.
won't do much to change Timberlake's reputation as an imitator, although he's shown the good sense to diversify the range of artists he draws from. Critics have overstated Prince's effect on the boy (much of this has to be down to Timbaland) but his ghost is certainly present on 'Damn Girl' and 'Sexy Ladies'. If one listens more closely, it's clear Justin's been surrounding himself with all the right vocal influences: his mannerisms at times recall Al Green, James Brown and even Snoop Dogg in addition to Jackson and Prince. Additionally, if Timberlake does wish to establish himself as a unique creative artist, he'll have to work (on his own or with his existing partners) on his own production style instead of letting his producing partners overpower him; he may have gone some way towards this by forming the production team JAWbreakers with will.i.am.
Over-reliance aside, FutureSex/LoveSounds
in almost every way. It may not have four singles in it as strong as Justified
had, but overall it's a far more accomplished record: he's a more skilled vocalist; his songwriting has improved, if only slightly; and it's an album that actually maintains quality throughout instead of dipping off half way through. Timberlake hasn't justified himself quite yet and, thank the lord, he left sexy where it was, but after the double let-down of Back to Basics
, it's refreshing to hear a major pop album that actual works as an album