Even the album cover sort of doesn’t suck
People are going to hate me for this one.
There’s a moment about three and a half minutes into “Losing My Way,” the second-to-last song on Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSound where it becomes completely obvious that Timberlake, maybe the world’s biggest pop star, has willfully turned himself into a vehicle for the weirdest ideas of Timbaland, pop’s most inventive producer, and I’m not even sure I can adequately describe why. Lyrically, “Losing My Way” is Timberlake’s take on one of pop’s most tired constructs: the hamfisted stab at social commentary. In the song, Timberlake preposterously imagines himself as a crackhead in the most simplistic way possible: “Now I got a problem with that little white rock, see I can’t put down the pipe.” But there’s something goofily endearing about Timberlake’s Bono moment; he doesn’t sound anything short of absolutely sincere, and there’s a sad, searching pathos in the way he voices all these hopeless cliches. And more importantly, it sounds amazing: the bassline is just a loop of Timbaland humming, and it has all this skeletal little drum skitters buried under sweeping layers of power-ballad strings and fluttering harps and twittering flutes. But the great moment comes when the song emerges out of an utterly gorgeous bridge and back into its chorus, except now it’s a gospel choir singing it. The whole gospel-choir thing is maybe the most dependably effective trick in rock: a million bands have done it, and it still somehow sounds powerful every time. Except now the gospel choir is group-howling over Timbaland’s weird little percussion patterns, and it sounds more amazing than any gospel-choir power-ballad since, I don’t know, Blur’s “Tender.” And it gets even better when either Kirk Franklin or someone who sounds exactly like Kirk Franklin starts exhorting stuff. I’m pretty sure this is the first time Timbaland has used a gospel choir on a track, and now I’m wishing he’d use one on every song. And this is on Timberlake’s “Winds of Change”/”Heal the World” moment, the obligatory toothlessly vague anti-poverty statement that every single pop star is culturally required to make at some point or other; it’s the sort of thing that you know is coming and you know is going to suck so you just get ready to look past it or make good-intentions excuses for it. And “Losing My Way” is great. If Timbaland and Timberlake can make that shit work, they can pretty much do anything.
FutureSex/LoveSound (horrible title, I know) is full of little epiphanies like that, moments where it become immediately obvious that we’re hearing two artists who are totally in sync (no pun, seriously), who are willing to go off the deep end but who always manage to make it sound completely pop and completely amazing. It’s a pop record, of course, which means it’s all about immediacy; maybe my enthusiasm for it will dip with time, but right now it’s one of my five or so favorite albums of the year. “SexyBack,” the first single, has found itself a lukewarm critical reception, probably because it doesn’t have any of the symphonic, layered complexity of something like “Cry Me a River.” It also has horrible lyrics, but I can’t imagine anyone’s ever listened to Justin Timberlake for the lyrics. The song has grown on me a lot over the past month, mostly because I’ve managed to convince myself that it’s more a track than a song. There’s a moment where Timbaland, in hypeman mode, says “take it to the chorus,” but there really is no chorus, just a bunch of alternating parts strung together in a furious vamp, the oscillating, blippy drums and screechy synths ebbing and cresting and then ebbing again instead of building up to a climax, everything tense and urgent and brittle. On the album, it’s followed up immediately with “SexyBack Remix,” which adds a quick, relatively uneventful little Pusha T verse but otherwise just repeats the song again without changing much. It’s an odd sequencing decision: essentially just playing the same song at the beginning an album rather than tacking on the remix as a bonus track. But it really just extends the vamp like an Arthur Baker disco edit, and it sounds great.
The album is immaculately sequenced, especially on the club-heavy first half. Most of the Timbaland tracks come with outro interludes that help one song bleed into the next, and it’s a great trick; it turns a lot of barely-related songs into a near-seamless whole. So the minimal slap-bass and disco synth-squiggles of “Sexy Ladies,” one of the album’s few filler tracks, fade into a quick little interlude where Timberlake and Timbaland do some likable, amateurish tag-team rapping (seriously) over dinging cowbells, which fade into the the delicate synth-flourishes and heartbeat drums of the album’s first masterpiece, “My Love.” Timbaland uses beautifully layered human-beatbox noises as percussion the way he did on “Are You That Somebody?” while Timberlake pulls his amazingly airy falsetto out of mothballs and everything suddenly turns symphonic. When T.I. shows up for his guest verse, he totally inhabits the track, letting his warm drawl sink into the beat and finding spaces and eddies to push his words around. Pete Macia already five-starred this thing, and I’ve got his back on that one.
“Love Stoned” starts out on some Medulla shit, with Timbaland building the track almost completely out of layered vocal noises: wicky-wicky cartoon-scratches, a hummed bassline, rhythmic breaths, all converted into a totally convincing club track. Then, on the chorus, a great Quincy Jones string flourish comes in and makes everything feel lighter than air while an awestruck Timberlake sings about clubbing as something like a religious experience: “Those flashing lights come from everywhere / The way they hit, I have to stop and stare.” And everything keeps mutating and evolving; the Nile Rogers guitar-scratches and Latin-funk congas don’t even hit until around the three-minute mark. And then the interlude: the song melts into an insanely gorgeous guitar riff and a slowly building string figure while the club track gets utterly swept away. When Timberlake comes back in, he’s singing the same words, but he’s doing it slowly and mournfully, completely changing the tone and leading everything into the next track. It’s just an interlude, but it’s a better Coldplay song than anything on X&Y. And it’s an incredible lead-in to “What Goes Around,” this album’s answer to “Cry Me a River,” the sad-tender-angry breakup song. But now, Timbaland is using some of the same organic warmth he used on Bubba Sparxxx’s Deliverance, winding an acoustic guitar through strings and drum-snaps and vaguely Eastern synth-figures while Timberlake moans about the girl who cheated. He’s saying in interviews that it’s not about Britney, that it’s completely non-autobiographical, but kids all over the world are going to be calling bullshit, especially when he gets to the next interlude, where he gloats when the girl finds out her new guy’s been cheating. If it is about Britney, it makes perfect sense; who doesn’t dwell on bad breakups, even years later, even when everyone has moved on? And then we’re back to the club shit: “Chop Me Up,” which has guest spots from Timbaland and Three 6 Mafia and a sung/rapped verse from Timberlake that reads like DJ Paul ghost-wrote it; it’s like a goofy-rapping convention. Timbaland builds the track from descending strings and staccato piano-plinks like he’s trying out a lusher, gentler version of DJ Paul and Juicy J’s hypnotic stomp. On the chorus, Timberlake sings “you got me screwed up,” and the words “screwed up” actually get slowed down; I wonder if, before he died in 2000, DJ Screw ever imagined that the guy from N SYNC would eventually be finding hilariously insane ways to shout him out on a song (and it’s even funnier because Timberlake’s slowed-down voice sounds exactly like the exaggeratedly deep slur that my high school friends use whenever they’re making fun of the way I talk). And then Tim calls himself “aka Thomas Crown” and delivers this little couplet: “Grab ya friends, let’s take it back to my hive / Let’s watch Sex in the City or Desperate Housewives / Simon says touch yours while you touch mine / Parental discretion is advised.” The first time I heard the song, I laughed out loud more times than I could count.
I haven’t seen the album’s production credits, but I’m pretty sure only two of its thirteen tracks come from producers other than Timbaland. On “Damn Girl,” Will.I.Am is on some Rich Harrison shit, turning in a nice widescreen pastiche of golden-age rap techniques. It’s pretty good, even if we’re forced to sit through a fucking horrible guest verse from Will. And “(Another Song) All Over Again” comes from Rick Rubin; it’s the self-consciously stripped down album-closer, meaning Timberlake doesn’t multitrack his vocals and most of the instrumentation seems to be live, though it’s all overproduced power-ballad stuff like the Brian McKnight song on Justified. It’s pretty enough, but it’s disappointingly pedestrian. Timberlake’s not built for songs like this, and the rest of the album proves it. In a way, FutureSex is this year’s Late Registration: an established pop star pushing his signature sound to cinematic extremes while making sure to leave in as many weird stylistic tics as possible and making the rest of the pop landscape look depressingly flat in the process. It’s a triumph in every way.
Voice review: Christopher O’Connor on Justin Timberlake’s Justified