The new album by Justin Timberlake isn't particularly sexy. This should be a problem. When you call your record FutureSex/LoveSounds, brag in your lead single about "bringing sexy back," and give your other songs titles like "Sexy Ladies" and "Love Stoned," certain expectations are raised. The term "FutureSex" holds the promise of freaky, science fiction-style erotica—something involving cyborgs, maybe, or the Orgasmatron from Woody Allen's Sleeper. But Timberlake's vision of sex and seduction is thoroughly grounded in 2006—in thuggish pickup lines and hip-hop clichés about hookups in nightclub VIP rooms. ("Let me make an indecent proposal/ Let me take you to the back and do what we're supposed to.") It's not an act that Timberlake is well-equipped to pull off. He's a fine singer, but his feathery falsetto is hardly the world's most macho instrument. Even on "SexyBack," with his voice distorted into a crackly roar, he still sounds like a pipsqueak.
None of which really matters, because FutureSex/LoveSounds is one of the more exciting pop records in a long time. The sex theme is just window dressing—this album is all about sonic surprise. On Justified (2002),Timberlake graduated from 'N Sync to adult megastardom, channeling the genial disco-funk of Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson. Timberlake could have chosen to solidify his status as the new King of Pop, but with FutureSex/LoveSounds he's gone wildly experimental, drenching his songs in a hallucinatory swirl of hip-hop beats and ambient electronica. It's by far the most avant-garde record ever issued under the name of a platinum-selling former boy-band star—a category that includes Michael Jackson.
The man behind the FutureSounds is Tim Mosley, better known as Timbaland, who co-produced 11 of the album's dozen tracks. Timbaland was laying low for a couple of years, but he returned with a vengeance in 2006, contributing several terrific songs to Nelly Furtado's album Loose, including the inescapable hit "Promiscuous." Quite simply, Timbaland is the most ingenious popular musician of the last decade—the man who brought minimalist hip-hop; stark, digital R & B; and all kinds of outrageous invention to the Billboard charts. (He also closed the gap between rap and R & B and post-rave dance music, pioneered hip-hop Orientalism, and did about a dozen other groundbreaking things.) The hallmarks of Timbaland's style—snare- and kick-drum hits on odd accents; bristling electronic high-hats; quirky, infectious little melodies built from synthesizer squiggles and sound effects—were long ago absorbed into the pop mainstream. But none of Timbaland's many followers have matched his knack for supplying fresh sonic shocks every couple of bars, an art that was most festively on display in the extraordinary hit singles he produced from 2001 to 2003 for Missy Elliott, his longtime muse.
Which brings us back to Justin Timberlake. Apparently tired of blowing everyone's mind with each new record, Timbaland and Elliott have drifted apart. (He contributed only two tracks on her 2004 album, The Cookbook.) In Timberlake, the producer has found a new ambassador for his most outlandish concoctions. There are some straightforward moments on FutureSex/LoveSounds, in particular the various attempts to replicate the synthesizer funk of vintage Prince. (Timberlake's Michael Jackson impression is a lot more convincing than his Prince.) But more often than not, the songs are way out there. It takes several listens to warm up to "Sexyback," a spectacularly abrasive piece of music built around the Brillo-pad scrape of heavily distorted vocals against heavily distorted keyboards. The album's second single, " My Love," is even stranger, with Timberlake singing pastoral love lyrics ("I can see us on the countryside/ Sitting on the grass, laying side by side") over some of the least pastoral sounds imaginable: a shivery, overdriven synth figure and some disgusting lip-smacking and masticating from a human beat boxer apparently enjoying a London broil. Midway through, rapper T.I. arrives to deliver some rhymes, and the piece ends in intense Sturm und Drang fashion, with Timberlake pledging his devotion over a cacophony of percussive squeaks and, swooping above the din, a keyboard line that sounds like an opera soprano imitating a theremin. It's an amazing song.
When a great producer teams up with a pop singer, especially a former teeny-bopper like Timberlake, there is a tendency to start talking about Svengalis. There's no question that a sound collage like "My Love" could only have come from Timbaland, but it would be wrong to downplay Timberlake's creative role on FutureSex/LoveSounds. Timberlake gets co-writing credit on all 12 tracks and co-production credit on 11, and there's no good reason to be suspicious of the liner notes. (Among other things, Timberlake wrote and produced songs during his 'N Sync tenure.) What's more, Timberlake is perfectly capable of making excellent music without Timbaland. The album ends with " (Another Song) All Over Again," a lovely, very old-fashioned soul ballad produced in an organic, anti-Timbaland style by Rick Rubin. Conversely, Nelly Furtado's appealing recent album proves that it's possible to make a far more traditional, pop-friendly record with Timbaland. At this point in Timberlake's career, he can do what he pleases; the decision to transform himself into a millennial funk humanoid was clearly his and his alone, and he should get props for his adventurous spirit. (It's a safe bet that there was serious dyspepsia among the Jive Records brass when they realized their golden boy was going all freaky.)
FutureSex/Love Sounds is clearly a meeting of minds, a singer and producer working symbiotically to produce something neither could possibly do on his own. The songs are long (none clocks in at less than four minutes), and several stretch into lushly melodic, suitelike codas. " Love Stoned/I Think That She Knows" begins as a hyperactive R & B track, but around the five-minute mark, it segues into art rock, with Timberlake crooning, "She's got me hooked, it just ain't fair … / I'm love stoned and I could swear/ That she knows" accompanied by droning guitar chords and a string sextet. It's gorgeous, dreamy, lovelorn stuff—which is turning out to be something of a Timberlake-Timbaland specialty. Justin doesn't have the voice, or the disposition, to convincingly play a callous Casanova, but he excels at heartbreak songs and scorned-lover anthems. Of course, the two Tims have been here before. The best song on Justified was "Cry Me a River," the Timbaland-produced breakup ballad whose video made perfectly clear that Timberlake was singing about his ex, Britney Spears. FutureSex/LoveSounds includes a sequel of sorts, "What Goes Around … /Comes Around Interlude," a roiling revenge symphony with lyrics that once again seem to take aim at Britney (and her ne'er-do-well husband): "You spend your nights alone/ And he never comes home/ And every time you call him/ All you get's a busy tone/ I heard you found out/ That he's doing to you/ What you did to me." Let's see: Timberlake sings, he dances, he puts sonically visionary singles on the top of the charts, and he keeps the tongues wagging at US Weekly? Now, that's a pop star.