Despite an endless audience for radio-friendly music, most pop-oriented artists eventually become bored with straightforward pop-music structures -- a tradition that's been carried down from the Beatles to Christina Aguilera. And really, who can blame them? Even though it's one of the hardest things to construct, the pop hit is also the most limiting, the tune they'll nearly always be requested to perform to the exclusion of other, often more relevant, work.
Take Radiohead, for instance, which dominated alt-rock airwaves in the '90s with tunes like "Creep" and "High and Dry" before making a conscious decision to become abstract -- a move that, bizarrely, made the U.K. quintet more popular than ever in the U.S. Even vocalist Thom Yorke's recent solo album, The Eraser (by all accounts a throwaway collection of feathery glitch-tronica), debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard album charts.
In a sense, monster boy band 'N Sync echoed Radiohead's career trajectory. The squeaky-clean quintet mesmerized the Top 40 glitterati with "Bye Bye Bye" and "Tearin' Up My Heart" before embracing producers such as BT and the Neptunes on 2001's experimental, hip-hop-leaning Celebrity -- which sold far fewer copies than its predecessor, 2000's No Strings Attached. The stylistic shift paved the way for the group's figurehead, Justin Timberlake, when he went solo and released 2002's Justified. A slick disc that pays homage to Michael Jackson, disco, soul and modern hip-hop, Justified established the 25-year-old as a bona fide pop star in his own right -- even though (and probably because) it sounded like nothing else on the airwaves at the time.
Timberlake attempts to solidify his street rep further on the new FutureSex/LoveSounds, thanks to collaborations with Snoop Dogg, T.I., will.i.am and Three 6 Mafia. But whereas Yorke's solo album succeeds by playing to his strengths, Sounds finds Timberlake obscuring his sonic gifts behind trendy production and conceits. The most frustrating thing, actually, is that he's attempting to downplay his status as pop icon. Timberlake's the rare artist capable of creating killer ear candy that's progressive and accessible; on Sounds, he seems reluctant to acknowledge this. Take "SexyBack," for example: It's certainly distinctive, but with minimalist techno drip-drops, squelching tracks and random Timbaland interjections ("Get your sexy on!"), its appeal is gradual, not immediate. Not helping is the chorus, which camouflages Timberlake's falsetto with distortion and a slightly menacing tone, as if he's saying: "Fuck all y'all, I'm bringing sexy back. Have a problem with that?"
The bigger problem with "SexyBack," however -- the song's lack of hooks and dynamics -- plagues much of Sounds. Timberlake's pop-song deconstructions are just boring; most tunes just don't go anywhere interesting once they've established a rhythmic and lyrical pattern. "Sexy Ladies" utilizes uber-'80s synth swerves and a loping funk bass very reminiscent of Prince, but wastes it on almost-bored vocals. "My Love" boasts a guest spot by T.I., yet features stuttering beats that repeat like a cartoonish Nintendo game.
That's not to say that there aren't some interesting moments. "LoveStoned" is a string-laden disco-tango driven by panting beatboxing, while the interlude "Let Me Talk to You" is a hyperactive Basement Jaxx-esque percussive collage. And the sublime kiss-off "What Goes Around..." is probably the finest ballad Timberlake's ever sung, a twisted spiral of vengeance and melancholy driven by billowing strings and melt-away harmonies.
Overall, though, the closest parallel in 2006 to Sounds is Yorke's Eraser, an album also built on a foundation of repetition, half-formed phrases and detailed sonic atmosphere. Eraser works because fragmentation is expected from Yorke and Radiohead, whose entire shtick is T-shirt sloganeering refigured as poetry. Sounds is obviously Timberlake's attempt to hang with pop's new kings, the hip-hop guys -- but instead of sounding modern, he simply sounds outclassed.
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