Review Summary: Straining so obviously to be the crux for the return of sexy, Timberlake allows his excessive effort to overshine the good music he has put to record.
In a pop world that goes through trends like Britney goes through pregnancies, there isn’t much time to dilly-dally over perfection, art, depth and other archaic criterion for what constitutes a “good” record. If you don’t release a single and accompanying video every few months, tour every year, and release a new record biannually, you’re soon going to realise you’re Debbie Gibson, it is 2006, and no one has thought about you in twenty years. So artists are forced to find ways of coping with the truncated cycle. They don’t sing live so as to preserve their vocal strength; they hire legions of collaborators, bang out a few tracks with each (oh Lord the entendres here are endless) and chose the best 11; they even conserve time in their videos, getting their assistants to hire filmmakers to create mini-films which have nothing to do with the music but in which the singer makes an 8 second cameo. Even with these efforts, artists can still find themselves sidelined within months of a release. So artists find ulterior means of remaining in the spotlight. They show up at parties, they get actress/model/singer girlfriends, they make films, they make films with their actress/model/singer girlfriends, they do drugs, they get arrested, they get a gay rumour floating. Whatever it is, it keeps them in the spotlight just long enough for people to care that they have a new record coming out. Take Justin Timberlake.
In 2002, he released his debut solo album, and it wasn’t until four years later that his follow-up was released. Four years is an awfully long time. Think of all the things that can happen in four years. An infant would become a walking, talking child and start school. If you were in the 9th grade you would have graduated; a freshman in university would now be holding a degree. John Entwistle, Layne Staley, Joe Strummer and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes all died in 2002. Think of how distant their deaths seem in your mind, how far away it all is. In music, “Complicated”, “Without Me”, “How You Remind Me” and “Get the Party Started” were beyond massive. Think of how things have changed. Avril has matured and married, the curtain has dropped on Eminem, Nickelback is one of the most reviled bands in existence, and so on. Some of the biggest albums of the year came from Nelly and Ashanti, who have all but dropped off the musical radar (unless you’d count “Grillz”, but let us not). Yet despite the significant amount of time that has passed between his two albums and the scores of pop artists who have faded in that timespan, Justin Timberlake never really went away. I don’t read tabloids or watch entertainment shows but I know Timberlake is dating Mary, or rather Cameron Diaz. He made some movies that no one has seen and did some drugs no one saw him do, slapped a paparazzo, rolled around in a wheelchair for a while, whatever. None of this is at all significant, is it? So how did Timberlake even survive the four-year gap? Five words: Ms. Jackson, if you’re nasty. Without detailing it here because who cares, Timberlake survived a four-year album gap because of Janet Jackson’s nipple. Mark my words that will be a doctorate thesis.
So arriving in 2006 off the strength of a nipple and some surfing pictures, he dutifully accepted the invitation to the yearly Pop Conference. He had already been working on a few songs here and there, but had yet to develop a tagline for his record. Still, he felt prepared enough. Sitting next to Beyonce and John Mayer, across from Christina Aguilera, he listened intently to the instructions. People were starting to notice that artistic vision and thematic depth had all but disappeared from pop, if it had ever been present in the first place. Therefore 2006 would be the year of maturation, of experimentation, and of gargantuan publicity jaunts and equally impressive record sales in time for the fourth quarter. 2006 would also be the year of failing to actually succeed
in the former two categories, but the effort was there. Christina would go to the past, Justin to the future, Beyonce to wherever the fuck she is, Mayer to “I’m a serious musician” land (previously visited on every other of his albums – so much for experimentation). In Justin’s gift bag were a handful of slashes, a Prince symbol pendant, Timbaland’s phone number, a Shpongle
album willing him to expand his song lengths, and a motivational poster urging him to bring sexy back. Take it to the chorus!
I have to admit, the first time I heard FutureSex/LoveSounds
’s lead single “SexyBack”, I thought it sucked. No, beyond that. I knew
. It sucked like [Lance Bass joke]. Knowing my first impression of that was frighteningly accurate, I feared for the state of the rest of the album. Upon first listen, it was more than disappointing. Fortunately, it does grow, unlike the detestable single. But one thing that never improves is the thematic absurdity of the record. It is excessively difficult to buy Timberlake as some kind of suave lover or magnetic sex symbol. He just isn’t. The boy is a good dancer, singer, all around performer. But sexy? Not quite. The man to bring sexy back? Not happening. This makes this album seem a little more than disingenuous. The opening song, “FutureSex/LoveSounds” is musically and melodically great. However, “Daddy’s on a mission to please
”? Hard to buy. “She’s pressed up on me; I think she’s ready to blow
”? “[/i]All I need is a moment alone, to give you my tongue and get you out of control[/i]”? It sounds like the dialogue to a low-rent porn film. It makes one question exactly what films Timberlake was starring in during his sabbatical.
This initial song establishes a pattern for the rest of the record. Infectiously catchy and in many cases accomplished pop music, marred by retardedly retarded lyrics. You know how to actually bring sexy back? You don’t talk so God damned much about it. “Sexy” is one of those qualities which should seem effortless and unintentional. You’re only sexy if you don’t care about being sexy. The way Timberlake approaches both sex and being sexy is the equivalent of a 16-year old boasting about being in a sexual relationship. No one else cares but him, but there’s a certain sense of needing to belong, aura that just exudes “guys guys take me seriously I’ve had sex seriously!” Generally you’d think people would be over it by the time they’re 25, then again celebrities are rarely well-adjusted people. Basically, if Timberlake didn’t try so hard to prove he was sexy, he might actually be.
Leaving the thematic issues aside and focusing instead on the music, there isn’t much to attack, particularly on the first half of the record. “Sexy Ladies” is smooth and funky, “My Love” has a fantastic beat and the appearance of T.I., while gratuitous, actually fits in well within the musical context of the song. As the next single, “My Love” bests “Sexyback” exponentially. “LoveStoned” reminds me heavily of “Last Night”, and the chorus seems to borrow from both his own “FutureSex/LoveSounds” and Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous”. But the song particularly starts to shine as it breaks down into a ballad-like interpretation of the chorus, titled “I Think She Knows Interlude”. If the record has four singles, this will surely be one of them. The third of the treble of fabulous songs is “What Goes Around…/…Comes Around” which has been labeled “Cry Me a River Pt. II”, and quite rightly. Timberlake has claimed it isn’t about Britney, but considering she’s married to a guy like Kevin Federline… it’s about her. No, seriously.
The latter half of the album really drags for me and there isn’t even a one song I would label a hit. I’m not a fan of the “Dirty South” musical style, but “Chop Me Up” is a decent white-guy attempt at it. However, I think it would have been more authentic if Timberlake lost the derrty South vocal affection in the verses. The same applies to “Summer Love/Set the Mood Prelude”. Much like with his attempt at being sexy, Timberlake simply tries too hard. “Damn Girl”, despite being co-written with pop master will.i.am, does absolutely nothing for me, as with the excessively bland ballads “Until the End of Time” and “(Another Song) All Over Again”. As he has proved over the past two albums, despite his vocal abilities, Timberlake can do nothing to make ordinary ballads even remotely appealing. “Pose” is kind of fun, but not a song anyone will remember in a year, six months, tomorrow.
“Losing My Way” is actually a beautiful song, but the lyrics are painful to listen to. As Timberlake tells about “Bob
” who “can’t put down the pip
e”, it might inspire one to pick up the little white rock, in fact. But musically and vocally the song is a highlight on the album.
Clearly, if it weren’t for the lyrics this record would be much stronger than it is. Most of my complaints of this album stem from the lyrics and themes, but I must emphasise that despite this the music and vocal melodies, particularly in the first half, are accomplished. The record is only harmed by Timberlake’s tendency to try to hard. He tries too hard to make a serious, mature, adult record. He tries too hard to appropriate characteristics of artists and styles he is fond of (Prince, Michael Jackson, dirty South music and so on). He tries too hard to sound sexy and sexual. In the end, if Timberlake just relaxed and let the cards fall as they may, he might for once allow his talent to override the hype and gimmickry and emerge with a record which proves artisanship is far from absent in the pop world. See you in four years.