The upcoming 10th anniversary of the release of FutureSex/LoveSounds is as good a time as any to remember the record and reflect on the impact of Justin Timberlake’s sophomore solo album, especially with regard to its lynchpin position in his discography. Simply put, it’s the most important album of Timberlake’s career, and probably always will be.
Following three albums with *N SYNC, Timberlake’s 2002 debut, Justified, established him as a legitimate R&B/pop hitmaker, with hits like “Like I Love You,” “Rock Your Body” and “Señorita” leading the way. Justified was an important first step, but aside from the sonically daring and brilliantly executed second single “Cry Me a River,” the album was pretty much what could be expected from Timberlake following *N SYNC’s swan song, 2001’s Pop. Those paying attention to JT-led *N SYNC hits like “Girlfriend” and “Gone” could see the charisma and songwriting prowess of Justified coming from a mile away. The album was a touchdown, but Timberlake had set himself up as too talented (and too canny with his collaborators) not to score.
FutureSex/LoveSounds did not score another goal—It changed the game. A bold departure from the warm, synthesized soul that the Neptunes helmed on Justified, FutureSex was steely and sweaty, a universal dance opus that made room for intimacy. The album had some of Timbaland’s smartest work as a producer, with beds of elastic funk and electro-pop for Timberlake to roll around in. The album also had adult themes and f-bombs, speeding up the transition from Curly-Haired Boy to Shaved-Head Man for Timberlake. And it was so blindingly successful, from blockbuster sales to hit singles to a huge tour to real critical acclaim (it was nominated for album of the year at the GRAMMYs), that the pop world grew deeply anxious while awaiting Timberlake’s post-FutureSex return, which finally occurred seven years later with The 20/20 Experience.
And still, to me, those are not the greatest achievement of Justin Timberlake’s 2006 album. Ten years later, it’s more clear than ever: FutureSex/LoveSounds had the best first half of any pop album in 25 years. You have to go back to 1979 for Off The Wall, by JT’s idol Michael Jackson, to find a pop album with a first half that matches up.
Play the first six of the 12 tracks on FutureSex/LoveSounds, and you’ll find our euphoria. From the slinky “FutureSex/LoveSounds” to the explosive “SexyBack,” from the bubbly flirtation of “Sexy Ladies” to the bullet-time groove of “My Love,” from the bleary disco lights of “LoveStoned/I Think She Knows” to the hypnotic swirl of “What Goes Around…,” the first half of FutureSex/LoveSounds is an unyielding barrage of sounds and ideas. If you know someone that doesn’t enjoy the first half of this album, be concerned for them. If you yourself don’t enjoy the first half of this album, you might not enjoy pop music.
Sure, the singles are all scorching hot: “SexyBack” and its several catchphrases hold up, “My Love” finds Timberlake and T.I. at the height of their respective powers, and the jubilation of “LoveStoned” is matched by the longing of “What Goes Around….” But the connective tissue of those 33 minutes of audio is just as crucial. The way “FutureSex/LoveSound” segues into the robotic stomp of “SexyBack” perfectly set up the single, while the “Let Me Talk To You” intro to “My Love” plays with the listener’s expectation before getting down to business. Most impressively, the “I Think She Knows” interlude post-“LoveStoned” turns a dance song into something more nuanced and moving, with Timberlake pulling back and twisting the single’s hook into a sweeping proclamation of emotional addiction. And then, the floor drops out on “What Goes Around…,” and we’re breathless.
Timberlake has never been more in control than these six songs… especially when considering the six that follow them on the FutureSex/LoveSounds track list. The back half of the album is solid but far from dazzling, with the album’s fifth-best single (“Summer Love”), collaborations with Three 6 Mafia and Will.i.am (“Chop Me Up” and “Damn Girl”), and a saccharine after-school special that sounds completely out of place on the album (“Losing My Way”). Put it this way: If Timberlake had released the second half of FutureSex/LoveSounds as a six-song standalone project, it would have been widely regarded as a step backward. Conversely, if FutureSex/LoveSounds was released as only its first six songs, it… might be the best album of the decade, really.
How good is the first half of FutureSex/LoveSounds, historically? Place the first six songs of Timberlake’s second album next to the first halves of Led Zeppelin’s IV, Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, Nirvana’s Nevermind and Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang, and it holds its own. Place it next to the firs halves of Madonna’s Like a Prayer, Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, Kylie Minogue’s Fever and Rihanna’s Good Girl Gone Bad, and FutureSex/LoveSounds wins against those classic pop releases.
The first half of FutureSex/LoveSounds is meant to be basked in as a musical titan’s greatest run of songs thus far. Take some time to appreciate it, 10 years later. And take ‘em to the chorus, Justin.