Following the massive success and surprisingly warm critical reception of his solo debut Justified in 2002, Justin Timberlake did what any breakout pop star would do: he got into acting. It wasn’t until completing roles in Edison and Alpha Dogs that he’d begin working on what would become his crowning achievement, FutureSex/LoveSounds, at the tail end of 2005.
Timberlake essentially told his label that the album would be done when it would be done: “I don’t know, it could take a year.” He was sure to point out that he wouldn’t be told what to do, and for the most part, that has been true throughout his solo career — it just so happens that what he wants to do usually aligns perfectly with what the world wants him to do. And what he wanted to do when he decided to come through with that follow-up 10 years ago, long before he was on his “Suit & Tie” shit, was put on a suit and tie to bring sexy back.
After jumping in the studio with will.i.am for the funk-rock hybrid “Damn Girl” and writing the soulful “(Another Song) All Over Again” with Matt Morris, Timberlake reunited with Timbaland and asked the star producer “if he could do five or six more ‘Cry Me A Rivers.’” That 2002 single marked a career shift for Justin after his debut solo track “Like I Love You” failed to crack the Top 10 on the charts. With “Cry Me A River,” the boy band crush offered up a warped version of a heartbroken/bitter lover, a thrilling allusion to Timberlake’s crash-and-burn relationship with Britney Spears. The song transformed him from the boy next door with the ramen hair to the guy gunning to be the Next King of Pop.
Requesting half a dozen more “Cry Me A Rivers” was shrewd — and by no means an organic approach to making an album. It could have been a recipe for disaster, a collection of knockoffs of his career-defining song (up to that point). But not on Timbaland’s watch. While “What Goes Around…Comes Around” delivered on the “Cry 2.0” front, much of the album took that concept and ran with it, channeling David Bowie and Prince, a fact that Justin was very open about throughout the album’s promo cycle.
The warped and distorted “SexyBack” would be the most unexpected result, and it became his first No. 1 single. The more melodic but equally forward-thinking follow-up, “My Love,” also topped the Hot 100. Rounding out the No. 1 streak was that Britney split-inspired “What Goes Around…” — the first song recorded during the Timbaland sessions.
During those sessions, the album’s odd track runtimes were born. JT wanted to play around with some rock dynamics, influenced by Coldplay, and Timbaland suggested fusing interludes with the main songs as a way to ease listeners into these new directions. “We were like, let the fans come back and say, ‘Yo, that song at the end of ‘LoveStoned,’ y’all should have made that a whole song,'” Timbaland said at the time. And it worked: The hits are still undeniable, but after all this time, those brief excursions of “Let Me Talk To You,” “I Think She Knows,” “Come Around” and “Set The Mood” still leave you thirsty for more.
Timberlake’s new sonic territory worked in tandem with his desire to shed the good boy image that always managed to stick to him. Before this album, his public relationship with sex had been strangely complicated. Of course there was the whole “boy band innocence” thing, and then he dated a star who openly claimed to be a virgin. Even after a Rolling Stone cover that featured him shirtless, oiled up and talking about how little he liked to masturbate because he prefers the real thing – he was still considered wholesome. Then there was the “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl, when Timberlake infamously helped Janet Jackson bare her breast on CBS on a Sunday evening. (He would later apologize for taking part and America seemed cool with it, preferring to vilify Janet for the incident instead.)
And so after all that, he released an album with the word “sex” in the title and in the names of the first three songs, just to set the tone. The album opener tipped us off to what he was going for: “a moment alone to give you my tongue and put you out of control.” While it could read like a teenager’s book of seduction, it ultimately didn’t because, coupled with Timbaland’s slanted bouncing bass, it sounded convincing. That’s the case right up through the last piano notes of “(Another Song) All Over Again.”
And it certainly didn’t feel like a bunch of “Cry Me A River” retreads. Ten years after the fact, it’s easy to see the music avoided certain pitfalls because it was the result of a person coming into his own as an adult and as an artist, at the same time. With three No. 1 singles, FutureSex/LoveSounds outsold Justified by a million and went on to sell 10 million units worldwide. Daddy was on a mission to please, and the numbers prove he did. But he did without falling into expectations. It’s perfectly ironic, then, that for the past decade the expectation for young stars looking to blossom into “mature” artists is that they’d look to the FutureSex template — but rarely would they come close to replicating it.