After all, Justin Timberlake is a member of a boyband (the biggest in the US by a long shot, though over here *NSYNC is not all that popular) and their music, while fun and energetic and enjoyable, is hardly the stuff of legend. And yet, in most reviews I've read, not only does this mean reviewers come to this album with all sorts of prejudices and preconceived ideas and misconceptions, but also a harsher standard.
I say, c'mon, cut the boy some slack. I've heard much lazier songwriting and production by established bands and artists who have been much more warmly received just because they can play their own instruments in public. (I'm just going to say here, let me quote you from the latest Matchbox 20 single Disease: "You taste like honey, honey, tell me can I be your honey". That just about beats my previous example of stupid lyrics, which was from Matchbox 20's Real World: "I wonder what itís like to be the rainmaker I wonder what itís like to know that I make the rain." Gah. They make me so mad. Where's that supposed talent?)
Er. Anyway. I seem to have digressed. Back to the topic at hand.
I'd start with giving Justin points for trying something different. The sound is really quite different from any previous *NSYNC songs (not even that similar to The Neptunes flavoured pop/hip-hop hybrid of Girlfriend) and that was a risky move because that ready-made large fanbase seems quite divided over whether they like his songs or not.
I do like the album, and I find it eminently move-able, but keep in mind that I can dance to mainstream hip-hop (eg. P. Diddy, N.E.R.D, Jay-Z) but I know quite a lot of people who disagree. Also, I grew up on early Michael Jackson (the good stuff, like Remember the Time and even further back, before he changed colour and made sappy songs with bad beats instead) and there's quite a hint of this in the songs. I don't think this is a bad thing. It's not like he's trying to BE Michael Jackson, but he's made some songs that integrate the falsetto voice Jackson made his signature with more current hip-hop beats and some fancy production by people who know what they are doing (Timbaland and The Neptunes).
However, there is a part of me that wishes The Neptunes had not been so heavily relied upon in the making of this album; in fact, at some points they seem to have given him what sounds like songs they cast off their own album, In Search Of.... Also, the boy writes some seriously cheesy lyrics on his own anyway. Put this together and you get some of the weaker songs on the album, where The Neptunesí love of genre mixing isnít supported by Justinís admittedly at-times lacklustre and not all that strong voice, nor by lyrics that could have cribbed from the latest issue of Dolly or a self-help guide.
It is really quite evident which songs The Neptunes produced - one of the songs (Take It From Here) I would swear has the same chord progression, and pretty much the same instrumentation, as Run to the Sun; it just doesn't sound as good. Also, there is a rather lame social justice song at the end (Let's Take a Ride) that sounds a bit like Bobby James except boring and without the tension of the latter. However, they use the same cruisy swinging sound from the outro of Bobby James in Nothin' Else, and there it does work, blending in with the tone and mood of that song, and it is one of the better ballads on the album.
But - and it's a big but - despite my misgivings over some of the softer slower songs, and the work of producers, there are some seriously catchy songs on this.
The second single Cry Me A River, which is obviously not about Britney (hah!), is excellent. It's not just a rant but a breakup song with attitude (he's so saying that she cheated on him) and he's brought along with a kickass beat, a gospel choir, some well-used falsetto and a nice melody to tell us all about it coyly. Timbaland brings his trademark wave of unlikely sounds, as more well known on tracks by artists such as Missy Elliot, to excellent use here; the theme of water - as tears, as cleansing of past misgivings, as change - heard along with the grounding clicks and whirrs that drive the song. I like it a lot. And donít even get me started on the video.
Iíve noted where I found The Neptunes lacking, but the truth is they also produced and co-wrote two of my favourite songs off this album, Senorita and Last Night.
Senorita is cute, and sounds and feels like a lot of fun went into creating this song. There is a showy sung intro to begin the entire album, ending with a call and response session with Justin singing in the best parts of his (small) tenor range and his falsetto. Really, itís all good.
Last Night again has the cheatiní girlfriend theme, another post-breakup rant, but is interesting in that most of the song is sung about the good times that they had as a couple and how the girl has lost out by changing all of that. And for something that is thematically very similar to Cry Me A River, Iím glad to hear how different it sound musically. Here the falsetto is employed to give a grating feeling to the chorus, where the girlís treachery is revealed, while a smoother jazzier feel is used in the bridge between the jerky beat laden verses as the boy reminisces about times past. And there is a very good dig at what is presumably Britney at the end of the song, in his spoken word outro, as he drawls out "baby" in a mocking questioning tone.
I think I like these songs the best because I feel they are the least derivative on the album, and have the most feeling behind them. They have elements of artists that Justin has been accused of copying - Michael Jackson, Prince, Marvin Gaye etc - but I feel that heís used them in a way that makes them more about himself, a part of his work.
I have a small group of songs that make me feel like dancing around and grooving. I donít feel that thereís a lot of meaning behind them, but they trigger the right response. The music is polished, technically, though the lyrics are not as well thought out. Itís a mix of Neptunes produced tracks (first single Like I Love You; the "Michael Jackson eat your heart out" groove of Rock Your Body; and Right for Me) versus Timbaland produced tracks (Take Me Now, on which Janet Jackson guest vocals rather unmemorably; and What You Got).
As for the rest of the album, there are some cruisy attempts at laidback ríníb jazz hybrids that work on some level, but do not excite me. They donít make much of an impression, and in some moods they can be downright boring. The best of the bunch is probably Nothiní Else, as I mentioned before.
Thereís also the rather out-of-place piano ballad of Never Again, produced by easy listening US crooner Brian McKnight. I think ballads are a bad idea for Justin Timberlake in general, because he really does not have a strong voice for that kind of solo work (it has a tendency to be a little lighter and airier than someone belting out a love song should have) but this one has the unfortunate status of being the third song in the post-breakup thematic trilogy. And next to such kickass and musically strong songs as Cry Me A River and Last Night, it really pales in comparison. There is nothing offensively bad about this track, and for a ballad it is not as soppy or annoying as it has the potential to be, but it just doesnít have the energy or conviction to make it interesting.
Lastly, the Australian release disc has one bonus hidden track. It is unnamed and truthfully, I couldnít care less. Because it is drippy and has no melody and was probably thrown in last minute and is just plain annoying. I hate it, and skip it every time. It is my one big gripe about this otherwise good album.
My verdict? Justin Timberlake could have a decent solo career away from *NSYNC, but he has some way to go before he can really be considered great. He can write some good songs, but the album is a little patchy for such hype that was generated before it was released. It is good to hear a difference in sounds when compared to those of his pop group - not that those are any less enjoyable, but it seems a mature decision to branch out in a different direction. Lucky for Timberlake, it does seem to be one that he is musically capable of in terms of vocal and songwriting abilities. Hopefully, if he continues to nuture a solo career, he will look into improving both of these talents, or maybe learn to cater more specifically to what are his stronger suits - faster beat laden songs with the intent of moving an audience, rather than slower ballads that show the weaknesses in his voice and lyrics.