Right now, Justin Timberlake is absolutely bulletproof. Marketing aesthetic for his sophomore record? Throw together natty suits, ubiquitous facial hair and disemboweled disco balls. Bam – buckets of hype. Music video for his lead-off single? The combo of Timbaland and espionage equals – boom – a hit video for “Sexyback.” And admitting to reporters his experimentation with drugs and alcohol? Only makes him more popular.

Angela Cesere
Justin Timberlake, in typical form. (Photo illustration by mike Hulsebus; FROM LEFT: Courtesy of Jive)

With all of the advance press Timberlake has garnered for Futuresex/Lovesounds, it’d be fair to expect the album to blow his surprisingly solid debut, Justified, out of the water.

Futuresex has certainly been built up in coquettish PR fashion: dropping an early leadoff single here, playing a surprise show with all new cuts there. “Sexyback” garnered contrived spacebar jokes and positive reviews for the singer’s digitized boasts (“I’m bringing sexy back . don’t make me make up for the things you lack”) and casual profanity (“them motherfuckers don’t know how to act”) spun over Tesla coil shocks of rhythm. Second single “My Love” rides its A-list guest stars: a teasing, pulsing keyboard pushes JT’s vocals over classic Timbaland chirps and clicks from Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” T.I.’s guest rap adds 40 seconds of icing, his easy drawl slip-sliding toward a coda. Not just bitter over the Britney breakup (re: “Cry Me a River” and its uncomfortably voyeuristic, yet titillating, music video), Timberlake lets loose with that sweet, gushy stuff, flirting with matrimony in his lyrics. He’s 25, dating an older woman, toying with facial hair and funk carioca beats – this is good for him.

Admittedly, the impact of Timberlake’s 2002 debut will be hard to top. The setup for Justified was as near-scripted as it gets in melodramatic pop-music land. Timberlake broke up with both his superstar boy band and his superstar girlfriend, subsequently creating – aided primarily by Timbaland and Pharrell Williams – the best vehicle for a newly solo pop artist in recent memory. The few ballads arrived flat, but “Like I Love You” became the season’s guilty pleasure and the album spawned a host of other hits, including one originally written for Timberlake’s idol, Michael Jackson (“Rock Your Body”).

Timberlake’s efforts elicited comparisons to Jackson for his debut, and there’s been Prince talk surrounding Futuresex, especially with the confident, bedroom vibe of his lyrics and the silky, deliberate beat of “Until the End of Time” (a Donny Hathaway-inspired ballad featuring the Benjamin Wright Orchestra).

But if imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery, Timberlake is showing an awful lot of love for his different influences. On the playful “Damn Girl,” the clean ’70s horns and flirtatious, soaring chorus juxtapose with his modern tongue and style (“You don’t need Maybelline / ‘Cause you’re a beauty queen . I guess I gotta put it down tonight”). Sexy Al Green yelps brighten the song. He draws from Hathaway and Green on the orchestral ballads and subtle slow jams, looks to Stevie Wonder for ripples of sunshine-bright pop and soul, not to mention any other black pop artist (name preferably followed by “legend”) who seems fit to be name-dropped in reference. Part of Timberlake’s success is how unabashedly he borrows from the singers and songwriters he admires.

And it doesn’t make him David Byrne, but on Futuresex Timberlake trends toward the experimental. “Sexy Ladies – Let Me Talk To You” serves as a prelude for “My Love,” referencing the latter in a quirky call-and-response with Timbaland over light, clattering percussion, while the “LoveStoned” interlude and it’s stutter-stop beat makes way for the moody, quasi-indietronica of “I Think She Knows.”

But when Futuresex fails, it trips in embarrassing fashion. Timberlake has too much potential and name-brand help to be choosing staid weepers.”Losing My Way” – with Timberlake playing a washed-up crack addict – is simply out of place next to cuts featuring Three 6 Mafia (“Chop Me Up,” one of the album’s weakest) and semi-homoerotic Justin/Timbaland sex banter.

Timberlake is currently the best at doing what he’s doing – dancing, hitting that birdsong falsetto, foraying into movies without being laughed out of the park – that it’s impossible not to judge him or desperately search for one of his contemporaries that is qualified to show him up. But what’s scary is that there’s no one else around him at that same level. That might not be so much a sign of his ability as a consummate entertainer/performer but an alert that we’re seriously lacking in quality pop music.

Futuresex isn’t the Thriller follow-up to his Off the Wall (Justified, obviously). Maybe that’s a far stretch of an analogy to make, but from now on Timberlake is going to have to face up to these standards. The kid’s not only competing with Usher anymore.

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