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Sex/Love, Pop/Soul

At present, the future sounds like...



"Timberlake got himself a 'hood pass with that joint." -- MTV 2's Ebro

The Mouseketeer ménage that was Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake has reached a "Crossroads" (sorry, had to do it). Britney has come full circle from bayou jailbait to Beverly Hillbilly. Aguilera, the virtuoso, made it through a painful evolution from teeny-bop to rebel to mature performer with her own niche as the 21st century's Cher. Timberlake, of the face, voice and moves that ignited the fantasies of a million pre-teen girls (and probably a few guys) as a member of world-beating boy band N*Sync, has shifted into a new gear with his second solo effort. And I'm trying to figure out if Future Sex/Love Sounds is JT's Pet Sounds or his Blondes Have More Fun and whether or not "My Love" is his "God Only Knows" or his "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?"

If you dig the Timbaland sound that made Missy Elliott the Janis Joplin of hip-hop, all of those elements are here again for you -- but in a fashion that hasn't been stitched up in quite the same way before. Tim's production hand on 2002's "Cry Me A River" from Justin's solo debut, Justified, turned out to be a tapas portion of what was to come -- preparing listeners for the present, when Timberlake would ditch the unstoppable, but perhaps overexposed, Pharrell vibe for the unmistakable but sometimes repetitive Timbaland feel. If Pharrell is his generation's Quincy Jones -- the guy you can't afford to not have produce your record -- then Timbaland has to be his generation's Mutt Lange; if you've got anything at all, he'll make you famous.

Of course, there are shortcomings to this album -- most notably that it is victim to the CD era's insistence on lacing too many tracks into one release. Were this the LP era, the album could have been a crisp 9 tracks and possibly a pop masterpiece, instead of limping to the finish line with 3 unnecessary songs that suck. Timberlake and his team also went too far in paying homage to/riding the jocks of Prince and Michael Jackson on this one. If you don't believe me, listen to "Until the End of Time" and then skip to scene 14 of the Purple Rain DVD (Wendy and Lisa's demo tape?) -- case closed.

And while I don't think this is a universally great album, it has some universally great songs. "SexyBack" (this year's "Hey Ya") will be, after Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," the most culturally resonant and overplayed song of 2006. But the album's second single, "My Love," currently #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, is the perfect pop song (and video). It combines all the necessary ingredients: Timbaland's electronic hip-hop, Timberlake's trademark white boy beat-boxing, video choreography that can only be described as tastefully raunchy, and in T.I., a credible rapper for the coda, which makes the song.

"My Love" works out to be a five minute manifesto of romance in these times. Timberlake's good cop sings about love letters and saying "I do" while T.I.'s bad cop pens a wicked sonnet that reaffirms the credo of the international playboy. As Justin croons, "I could see us holding hands / Walkin' on the beach, our toes in the sand / I could see us in the countryside / Sittin' in the grass, layin' side by side," T.I. insists "I'm patient, but I ain't gon' try / You don't come, I ain't gon' die / Hold up, what you mean 'you can't go' -- why? / Me and your boyfriend, we ain't no tie."

Though there's nothing actually "Future" about "Love/Sex" in pop music -- practically the genre's only trope -- the theme is done so well with "My Love" that you think it's something new and improved. The song's point/counterpoint reminds me of a comic strip panel, in which Justin's amorous melody is the monologue by which the hero fêtes the heroine, while T.I.'s grittier sentiments are the silent thoughts displayed in the bubble that only you, the readers, can see. Though the song could be interpreted as response to the call of Nelly Furtado's "Promiscuous Girl" (another Timbaland mega-hit that seemed like it was the soundtrack on every young lady's MySpace page this summer), I prefer to think of it as the long overdue rejoinder to 1999's "Hot Boyz" by Missy and produced by, yes, Timbaland.

I've unscientifically polled a broad cross-section of white, black, Puerto Rican, Asian, men, women, gay, straight and everyone likes "My Love." It's the rarest of the rare to create a groove that really no one can disagree with. And while in one sense, Timberlake can be taken as just another pop pretty boy -- the white Usher, if you will -- in another sense, with "My Love" and its universal appeal, he can support his message that he is the natural progression of the mainstreaming of hip-hop and the future of sex/love sounds.

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