By Amanda Wicks
On Thursday (September 8), Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds turns ten. His second solo album since leaving *NSYNC, the album cemented his departure from the world of boy bands, and also marked a new direction for his solo career. Here, we take a look back at the album and all the sexy Timberlake helped bring back with its release.
There’s an inevitable transformation in any young pop star’s career that occurs just as they enter adulthood. They shed their teen image and share a more “mature” side with fans. Britney, Christina, Miley, Selena and more have attempted it, and the backlash surrounding that transition has been as inevitable as the transformation itself, because oftentimes “mature” translates to “sexual.” And rarely does the world focus its critical gaze as harshly on male pop stars who make the transition from teen idol to male superstar, from boy band member to solo artist. If male artists just so happen to explore more adult subject matter, well–as the saying goes–boys will be boys.
Coming four years after Justin Timberlake released his first solo album Justified, the followup was a far more experimental and equally risqué album, FutureSex/LoveSounds. The title alone, combining old words into a fresh formation, felt as though Timberlake created some new language, one which challenged the cookie cutter boxes that often represent pop music. With producer/collaborator Timbaland (whose name is all over the album’s credits, from playing instruments to lending vocals), Timberlake stretched the identity he’d long presented the world with, challenging what listeners thought about him. FutureSex/LoveSounds showed Timberlake all grown up and unafraid to own it.
In *NSYNC, Timberlake played the role of “the hot one,” similar to Nick Carter in Backstreet Boys, Nick Lachey in 98 Degrees and Harry Styles in One Direction. And while “hot” naturally comes packaged with a side of sexuality, in the boy band world it was never quite that sexual. With major hits like “It’s Gonna Be Me” off of 2000’s No Strings Attached and “Gone” off 2001’s Celebrity, *NSYNC sang about desire, but it was always couched in love. They fulfilled teenage fantasies, but those were, at best, antiseptic. With Justified, Timberlake may have stepped out alone into the spotlight, but in many ways he perpetuated how fans perceived him. One of the album’s big hits, the much-discussed “Cry Me a River,” purportedly detailed the end of his relationship with Britney Spears after she allegedly cheated on him.
FutureSex/LoveSounds changed all that. For starters, the album defied any easy notion of pop music because it went far beyond the standard two- to three-minute fare that defined such songs, instead including interludes, medleys and more songs that ranged between five and seven minutes. More than the content, Timberlake hit upon a sound that hadn’t been partnered with pop and R&B just yet. Speaking with Entertainment Weekly in July about the tenth anniversary of the album’s lead single “SexyBack,” he said, “I remember [‘SexyBack’] playing in the club for the first time, and it was like whatever you played before it and whatever you played after it, sonically, just couldn’t compete.”
But more than that, it’s what Timberlake sings about, and how he sings it that shows homeboy had very much shed that clean cut image. It wasn’t just about love anymore. On his second studio album, desire came across as the real deal. Even though FutureSex/LoveSounds is, as the title suggested, a much more sexual and sensual album, Timberlake’s good guy image didn’t get lost in the mix. He did something incredibly hard to do in the music industry: he retained his “good guy” persona even while showing off a far more sexual side to it.
On the opening self-titled song, the melody only really broke through on the chorus. Otherwise, “FutureSex/ LoveSound” showcased a heavy rhythm track against which Timberlake’s opening vocals involved more moaning than crooning. His voice hadn’t gone anywhere, but he used it in a different way. On the second verse, he sang, “Said, if you’re thinking about holding back/ Don’t worry girl/ ‘Cause I’m gonna make it so easy/ So slide a little bit closer to me, little girl/ See, daddy’s on a mission to please.” This was no boy band member anymore. The former boy-band member was now “daddy.”
Regarding the album and its first single “SexyBack” specifically, Timberlake told EW, “I feel like what we did is rock & roll. You can call it pop music, you can call it pop-R&B, but the mentality of the music we were making at the time was grade-A rock & roll. I don’t want to say we had our middle fingers up, but we just wanted to make something that didn’t sound like anything that was out there. We wanted it to grab you by the throat.”
Just because Timberlake played at being “daddy” in order to make the sonic statement he wanted to with the album didn’t mean he completely shifted away from his core identity. Beyond the album’s innuendo-laden lyrics, its most successful song by far was the first single, “SexyBack” featuring Timbaland. The melody and rhythm alone conveyed a sensual attitude that still retains its class. Being sexy is about confidence, and that much came across even without Timberlake’s vocals. Timbaland cheekily said, “Excuse me when I say this, but it was like grabbing your balls and walking into the club, like everybody turns and looks at you. ‘SexyBack’ had that type of statement.” Where Spears (and team) and Aguilera (and team) may feel sexuality is best expressed in a lack of clothing and tightly chiseled abs, Timberlake and Timbaland showed that sexy is a state of mind. (Again, though, as a male pop star, that’s a message he can readily deliver, unlike female pop stars who traditionally have to rely on their bodies to do the same thing.)
FutureSex/LoveSounds found an adventurous Timberlake who showed that making the transition from teen boy band member to serious solo artist can be done, and can be done on his terms.