The great pretender

To any one of the many people who bought Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds (Jive) in the last month: Sorry. Not because you did — please, spend your money any way you see fit — but because nobody adequately warned you about one song on it, and some of the young and feckless have actually cheered it on. Eleven songs into this Timberlake and Timbaland reinvention of shambolic 1980s R&B, the 25-year-old former Mouseketeer and butchest of the boy-band alumni aims for his Donny Hathaway moment and testifies, over a swaying gospel beat:

I used to be the man in my hometown
until I started to lose my way
It all goes back to when I dropped out of school
It was fun, I was living the life
But now I got a problem with that little white rock
You see I can’t put down the pipe.

Lordhavemercywhatthefuck? Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you heard that right. “Losing My Way,” an easygoing slice of CCM-lite — think a less sincere and even more inconsequential tobyMac — features Timberlake in storyteller mode imagining what could be a former crack addict at his NA meeting chirping through the downward spiral of his so-called life. Now, no offense to crackheads past or present, but something about the song feels cloyingly offensive and flat-out lame: a) Why anybody would try cranking out only modestly funky sacred music in a world in which the righteous Kirk Franklin exists patently fails to compute. b) Given that, as of press time, FutureSex/LoveSounds still sits in the top five spots in the Billboard Top 200 and R&B/Hip-hop chart, a super-pop white boy singing about the tragic user downside of clockers’ trap music contorts the brain into all kinds of pretzel shapes. And coming from Timberlake, whose earlier reach for gravitas was “Cry Me a River” — an unabashed pity party but also a damn fine pop song — the stink on such shameless shenanigans masquerading as social commentary masquerading as gospel pop lays clear Timberlake’s ambitious aim: The man knows no contemporary black music style he thinks he can’t appropriate for his Day-Glo pop.

And for the majority of FutureSex/LoveSounds he does just that, with a wiggly bravado and airborne infectiousness. Timbaland provides the mechanical clank and rev under the hood and — if the album’s dance floor-ready first 10 songs are any evidence — the producer who made the stuttering click track and synth bleat safe for hip-hop has been mining 1980s R&B for his drum and bass sounds. Percussion rings big and quickly fades with a compressed, electronic drum sound, and the bass buzzes with that almost-ugly distortion that tickles the hairs around the ears and then heads straight to the pelvic floor. Think Gap Band or Cameo bass tones, which always start like wet raspberry kisses and get cut off before they get too messy. And while he doesn’t come up with a fiercely strutting bass line as nasty as anything Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis ever cooked up for Morris Day — though he comes damn close in “LoveStoned/I Think She Knows” — Timbaland cleverly updates that era’s early electronic basement bump and grind with his own panache for glittery accents and production punches.

But it doesn’t help Timberlake hide what he’s stealing from all the time. Everybody will hear Dirty Mind-era Prince haunting the background of the come-on handclaps and multitracked falsetto of “Sexy Ladies/Let Me Talk to You.” The looping piano plinks and gully, wide-bodied bass stagger of “Chop Me Up” — featuring Three 6 Mafia — is Swishahouse Houston filtered through Teddy Riley swing. (It isn’t even subtle about it: The chorus call is a slowed-up “screwed up” leading into the titular response punctuated by harmonized “Please don’t make a fool of me.”) And the leadoff title track sounds like a cluttered clank dusted off from Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock, all dated keyboard tones, fading echoes and anxious, seemingly new synth sounds searching for a context.

None of which is meant to imply that the tracks don’t stick to the brain after one, two listens tops. Even more so than the Neptunes’ bubbly work on Justified, FutureSex is instantly hummable custom-made pop that ably pleases the brain’s sweet tooth. “My Love” — featuring a few phoned-in bars from T.I. — stitches together its melodious clank out of a squishy strobe of keyboards, fractured beatbox samples, finger snaps and handclaps, over which Timberlake’s falsetto ice-skate glides through a picture of romance as high-school mash note. Album highlight —even with the inescapable presence of — “Damn Girl” winnows Timberlake’s paper-thin falsetto at its tinniest into a rollicking bit of summer doo-wop turned do what you do when you did what you did boardwalk stalk: “I said there something ’bout the way you do the things you do when you do the things you do it’s got me oh, oh, ohhh.”

And then there’s “SexyBack,” a song already the source of more lame jokes than it deserves — and 10 times the track than it’s given credit for. With a bass line that sounds like the Human League and the Pet Shop Boys trying to do Slave, Timbaland grafts a synth belch onto a percolating beat track and spices it up with vocal meta-accents — the “take ’em to the chorus.” Timberlake, distortion beefing his voice up a bit, slithers through series of PG-13 taunts before hitting the piston-pumped chorus — which runs through its repetitions for the next 32 seconds. Considering that that chorus is repeated three more times and that each verse is only four lines long, “SexyBack” accrues its hypnotic pulse by being all chorus, and its Lego schematic practically begs for endless remixing recombination.

What’s odd is how sexless the song — and, for that matter, the album — feels, despite its booty bounce and the obviously rakish vibe for which it aims. Blame that on Timberlake. Not saying the guy’s not good looking but that his voice is so clothed in effects on “SexyBack” — and throughout, even if it’s only multitracking — that very little feels human about the guy. He sounds too fleshless here, like a disembodied libido trapped in Timbaland’s funky Orgasmatron. The fact that he spends most of FutureSounds in falsetto isn’t helping. And, yes, OK, D’Angelo could sing like he had a snapping turtle attached to his scrotum, but the guy also looked like he could play free safety in the NFL if he had to.

Timberlake, well, he’s smashing a disco ball on his album’s cover — not exactly the manliest thing on the planet, but not without its effort to look somewhat human. And it’s that almost-human you imagine singing album closer “(Another Song) All Over Again,” a breathy ballad of the John Legend variety. It’s the closest thing to sincere Timberlake offers here, and the lone time he doesn’t sound like his microphone runs straight into a processor. It’s a rather mediocre slow-jam apology, but it offers a slivery glimpse of what a more vocally self-confident Timberlake might be able to concoct.

Bret McCabe is the arts editor of Metro Times’ sister weekly Baltimore City Paper. Send comments to [email protected]
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