Give Justin Timberlake credit for this: he has ambition. He drove the teen pop quintet to the top of the charts, far exceeding their peers the Backstreet Boys , and when the group could achieve no more, he eased into a solo career that earned him great sales and a fair amount of praise, largely centered on how he reworked the dynamic sound of early Michael Jackson at a time when Jacko was so hapless he turned away songs that later became JT hits, as in the Neptunes -propelled "Rock Your Body. Hell, a quick look at the titles of those first three songs shows some cracks in the album's architecture, as they reveal how desperate and literal Timberlake 's sex moves are. Each of the three opening songs has "sex" sandwiched somewhere within its title, as if mere repetition of the word will magically conjure a sex vibe, when in truth it has the opposite effect: it makes it seem that Justin is singing about it because he's not getting it. Surely, his innuendos are bluntly obvious, packing lots of swagger but no machismo or grace. They merely recycle familiar scenarios -- making out on the beach, dancing under hot lights, acting like a pimp -- in familiar fashions, marrying them to grinding, squealing synths that never sound sweaty or sexy; if they're anything, they're the sound of bad anonymous sex in a club, not an epic freaky night with a sex machine like, say, Prince. But Prince isn't the only idol Justin Timberlake wants to emulate here. Like any young man with a complex about his maturity, he wants to prove that he's an adult now by singing not just about sex but also serious stuff, too -- meaning, of course, that drugs are bad and can ruin lives.
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The pop star offers his ambitious, grandiose sophomore album: Almost entirely produced by Timbaland-- and with a more pronounced hip-hop edge than its predecessor-- the album abandons the feelgood sheen which the Neptunes peddled so adroitly on his debut, Justified , but makes up for it with the largesse of its sonic embrace. How Justin Timberlake must have sweated and strained over following his debut, Justified : As an album it was merely good, but it was graced by four singles so monumental they made him one of the decade's most celebrated pop icons. According to the laws of momentum which govern pop music, any sequel could only be either be a pale reflection or a hubristic monstrosity. Nothing is necessarily gained and often much is lost when pop music attires itself in notions of artistry and ambition, but with Justin it is, perversely, what makes him such a good pop star: As with Christina Aguilera, towering self-belief and stylistic metamorphoses provide a spectacle which papers over his stumbles and adds lustre to his successes. Almost entirely produced by Timbaland-- and with a more pronounced hip-hop edge than its predecessor-- the album abandons the feelgood sheen which the Neptunes peddled so adroitly on Justified , but makes up for it with the largesse of its sonic embrace, with Timbaland resurrecting many of his most effective guises, from rubbery synthetic funk to pseudo-crunk blare to eerie Eastern opulence. Throughout, the grooves are defined by their melodic intensity: It's the searing synth riffs and skyscraping strings which grab your attention, not stuttering beats or startling sound effects-- although these, too, are present in abundance. Here, Timberlake magnifies the persona he adopted on his debut, somehow both consummate lover and desperately needy. On hyperactive second single "My Love" his sexual propositions constantly elide into a proposal, as if anything less than matrimony is barely worth contemplating.