Timberlake shows off his bad self

Critic's Corner//Music

music review

August 28, 2006|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Justin Timberlake, the former "cute" one of *NSYNC, obviously wants to be as far removed from his plastic, boy-band/pop beginnings as possible.

And who can blame him?

Justified, his super-slick 2002 solo debut, bumped with meticulously crafted urban beats on top of which he added faux homeboy swagger. Though technically sharp, the album was devoid of substance, which (most times) doesn't really matter in pop anyway. The suburban-dude-goes-'hood formula worked for Timberlake, and Justified was certified platinum three times.

On Sept. 12, the former teen idol will finally release the follow-up, FutureSex/LoveSounds. To generate buzz for the clunky-titled album, Timberlake is on a national tour of small to medium-sized venues. And on Friday night, he stopped at Washington's 9:30 Club.

During the sold-out, 90-minute concert, Timberlake, 25, went out of his way to show how grown-up and "naughty" he is. He performed in a black business suit - tie and all; he grabbed his crotch and took swigs from a bottle of beer. He cussed and dirty danced to the screaming delight of the largely female audience.

Oh, Timberlake is so baaaad. But how about the music? With sharper beats and muscular bass lines, the songs he previewed from the new album are generally better than the ones on Justified. This time out, the Memphis, Tenn., native is delving further into R&B, coloring the music with deeper shades of Prince, Michael Jackson, even Rick James. But Timberlake still lacks what it takes to do it convincingly: soul.

Sure, he's a solid showman; he has been performing most of his life. The pop star has had plenty of urban-dance lessons, so he can slide, glide, pop and lock with the best of 'em. And his whimpering falsetto has matured and sounds smoother nowadays. But though Timberlake's material is tougher and more sophisticated, his vocal performances Friday night lacked character and nuance. He hit the notes but, like his former touring partner, the wailing Christina Aguilera, Timberlake doesn't seem to have the emotional range it takes to make his blue-eyed soul numbers believable.

However, he at least has the good sense to surround himself with fine musicians who can jam. On Friday night, Timberlake was backed by an all-black, 11-piece soul band that expertly folded in elements of opera, metal-rock, jazz and bass-heavy R&B. The show opened with a dramatic, bristly version of "Cry Me a River," Timberlake's hit kiss-off to former girlfriend Britney Spears. The version was much better than the recorded one, but the band ultimately overpowered the singer.

With Timberlake at the Fender Rhodes keyboards, he and the band locked a deep, Latin-tinged groove on "Senorita," a highlight from Justified. The performer was at his most playful here, falsely ending the number three times. Afterward, Timberlake introduced his new songs, starting with a squishy funk cut through which his falsetto slithered and quivered. Actually, he didn't do much singing. The band worked the groove as Timberlake slid across the floor, impressing the chicks with his studied b-boy swagger.

He strutted his stuff, strummed an acoustic guitar and sang hard on "Like I Love You," perhaps the best song from his solo debut. Near the end of it, he abruptly shifted the spare dance-pop confection to explosive grunge, interpolating elements of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Oddly, the combination worked.

"Until the End of Time," a pretty, quiet-storm cut off FutureSex, would have been moving if Timberlake's vocals weren't so faceless. And the same is true for "What Goes Around," a mid-tempo number that dragged toward the end. But he picked up the pace with the biggest hit from Justified, "Rock Your Body," which on Friday night interpolated Vaughn Mason's 1980 disco-funk classic "Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll." Timberlake ended the show with his latest single, "SexyBack," during which he brought on stage the song's producer, the masterful Timbaland. As the Virginia-raised beatmaker and rapper shadowed the singer, the band pushed the electronic R&B banger into a joyous go-go groove. The music was hot. You almost forgot Timberlake was even on the stage.


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