It was a timely combination of Justin Timberlake's willingness to take a risk musically and commercial hip-hop producers being at the top of their pop game that made 2002's Justified the critical and commercial hit it has become. It was that success that has made FutureSex/LoveSounds the excellent record that it is -- undoubtedly an overall improvement and almost certainly a roadmap for pop over the next year. Bereft of overproduced love ballads and Brian McKnight collabs that catered to the frightened record executives who didn't think hip-hop fans would embrace the N'Sync star or N'Sync fans would embrace a more unusual record, Timberlake's second solo record is dark and dirty to begin and smooth and sexy to finish. With only a few awkward cameo tracks to damage its reputation, this is going to be the soundtrack of the next few months.
It would be hard to top the pervasive success of "Cry Me a River" and "Rock Your Body," lead single "SexyBack" is already on its way and the second single, "My Love," is probably the standout triumph here, with stuttering synths and a fade-in-fade-out shimmering beat that may be the best ever from Timbaland (he co-produced ten of the twelve tracks, including this one, with Timberlake and Nate "Danja" Hills). But the record doesn't rest on its singles, and the first two-thirds of the record is dance-pop at its finest. Everywhere you turn the record sticks to your sides and runs up and down your bones. The one big misstep, "Damn Girl," featuring Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas, is more average than it is annoying and hardly detracts from the record even if it keeps it from perfection. Timberlake's vocals have improved a great deal since Justified, and he's now much more confident in the sex-symbol role. He sounds a lot less like a Michael Jackson fan not yet mature and more like a real frontman.
Admittedly, it's still a little awkward to care about Justin Timberlake. Though the members of N'Sync always seemed a little more concerned with making interesting pop than their rival Backstreet Boys, no one expected a career like this from any member of either group. That Timbaland has found such a perfect platform for his nastiest pop beats now that his Missy partnership seems to be over is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Timberlake's newfound solo career. But even if he doesn't have the best voice in pop, he can definitely carry a song, and if he continues to have such a strong ear for beats, he has a long and fruitful career ahead of him. Now take me to the chorus.