On Justified (out Nov. 5), Justin Timberlake swaps Europop for R&B and hip-hop. His smooth falsetto is an easy fit for the slinky quirks and rhythmic accents of the Neptunes and Timbaland, who produced the bulk of the album. Thanks to them, ”Justified” is a cohesive and fairly lean work, especially compared with ‘N Sync’s last two albums. Fellow singer-dancer and ex Britney Spears is never mentioned by name, but the songs appear to be divided between those about their breakup and those about its aftermath. In the former category, Timberlake gets downright maudlin and snippy, making the case in the drippy ”Never Again” that he was wronged. In the latter category, he’s more engaging – the stud on the loose, making promises of romance and more in slurpy cuts like ”Senorita” and ”Rock Your Body.” (”I could think of a couple positions for you,” he boasts in ”Right for Me,” whose loosey-goosey, barrio-street-corner groove is surprisingly experimental.)
Homages to Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder abound; in some ways, ”Justified” is the ultramodern R&B-pop hybrid ”Invincible” failed to be. But these strengths also pinpoint the project’s principal weakness. Whether it’s because Timberlake has a suave but indistinct voice or because his producers overpower him, the album is strangely anonymous. Only once does the singer grab the reins, and it’s quite a moment. Part electro shuffle and part symphonic sulk, the Timbaland production ”Cry Me a River” is a haunted, pained farewell, a genuine stunner that should leave Timberlake’s fellow ‘N Syncers concerned that he truly may not need them anymore.