What would Jacko do? Back in Justin Timberlake's 'N Sync days, and on up through his 2002 solo debut, this was the musical question that he was clearly asking himself, consciously or otherwise. But lately, even a kid who grew up wanting to be like Mike could hardly be blamed for suppressing his inner Jackson. And from the sound of FutureSex/LoveSounds, his sophomore effort, Timberlake must've gotten really spooked. The smooth, Jackson-venerating R&B of Justified is all but jettisoned, or at least postponed to later portions of the disc. You don't even get a hint of his trademark falsetto until four songs in, as he spends the early stretches singing in an uncharacteristically low or distorted voice. For a while, it's as if Timberlake has gone into the pop Witness Protection Program.
Or maybe he's just overthrowing one mentor for another: everyone's favorite new urban auteur, Timbaland. The enjoyable, forgettable FutureSex/LoveSounds may be a just-okay Timberlake album, but it's a great Timbaland demo reel. The love-it-or-hate-it, melody-resistant single ''SexyBack'' which by now you know is not an electrolysis jingle is a taste of what Timbaland (who worked on four Justified tracks but co-produces 10 of 12 this time) has to offer: tougher, trickier rhythms, minimal live playing, a plethora of hip-hop cameos, and a self-consciously hard, edgy club sensibility.
This feels like Timberlake's ''cred'' record. And it'll find special credibility among lounge lizards. The sexually voracious lyrics exalt the thrill of the nightly hunt above even the body-rocking that presumably follows. If you've ever trolled for models in the VIP areas of Miami Beach nightspots and stood a good hope of going home with one or two, this is your soundtrack. Old fans could complain about the overpowering guest rappers to the point that ''Chop Me Up'' comes off as a Timbaland/Three 6 Mafia collaboration, with Timberlake providing a cameo hook but even this sort of fits with the clubby motif: Justin and his hip-hop pals are a posse, together on the prowl.
But why can't we get him alone, where we can hear his seductions over the din, sans entourage? Eventually on FS/LS, we do; when his balladic falsetto finally appears, it's like the clouds parting. And if he will inevitably sound like that certain shunned someone when he lets his guard down, so be it. Superior tracks, like ''LoveStoned'' and ''What Comes Around,'' suggest a happy middle path, where Timberlake can equally embrace Timbaland's canny beats and his own vocal helium. Funny that when Timberlake isn't trying to avoid sounding like his onetime idol, he seems most like his own man.