Sexy Beast

Justin Timberlake
Image credit: Mark Mainz/Getty Images

Justified sold over 3 million copies. Yet, despite having such credible producers as the Neptunes and Timbaland, it failed to inspire the critical plaudits that Timberlake then craved.

''I was like, Yes, now I get to be like an Al Green!'' says the singer of his solo debut. ''Then the reviews came out: 'Pop album,' 'Pop album,' 'Pop album.' I couldn't f---ing believe it.... But it's just the nature of the world. At some point you have to realize you can't keep beating people over the head: I sing R&B, I sing R&B! Then you just become weird.''

The critical reaction sparked an epiphany. Timberlake realized there were things he could control and things he couldn't. ''And the ones that you can't control, you have to say, F--- it,'' he explains. ''And enjoy it!... So I was like, F--- it! If I'm a pop artist, then I don't just have to do R&B. That's why this [new] album sounds the way it does.''

Mostly co-produced by Timberlake with Timbaland, FutureSex/LoveSounds is short on traditional vocal hooks and long on thundering electronica-styled beats. Songs such as the title track and ''SexyBack'' barely sound like Justin Timberlake songs at all. The latter was such a departure, in fact, that Jive boss Barry Weiss more or less admits he had doubts when Timberlake suggested that it be released as the album's lead single. ''It was an unusual record,'' defends the label chief. ''It didn't sound like Justin vocally. It didn't have his distinctive falsetto-style vocals. It was a bit of a risk for all of us. But it was a risk that clearly paid off.''

Paid off? In spades. On top of the 2 million-plus copies FutureSex/LoveSounds has sold in the U.S., it has shifted an almost equal number abroad. The CD also ended up on a lot of best-of- 2006 lists, including EW's. But with Timberlake front and center in the public eye, a certain inevitable carping followed: Some critics wondered just who this young punk thought he was to be ''bringing sexy back.''

''Well, who the f--- is anyone?'' Timberlake asks. ''The thing I love about it is, at this point, people don't project it onto me. People don't come up to me and say, 'Hey, man, you're bringing sexy back.' They go, I'm bringing sexy back. But, yeah, obviously that's being pushed by the media — no offense. 'F---ing pretentious kid makes a statement.' They still love to call me a kid.''

Indeed, when it comes to his private life, Timberlake's newfound Zen has its limits. He declines to discuss his breakup with Cameron Diaz, or any of the supposed liaisons that followed the relationship's demise. He is, on the other hand, happy to discuss his strategy for dealing with tabloid coverage of his life: Avoid it. ''You sort of know it exists because, the more promotion you do, the more you hear about it,'' he says. ''But if I wasn't doing all this promotion I wouldn't even know about it. I'd be surfing or snowboarding or playing golf. That's how I keep my sanity. You cannot do this without a sense of humor. Otherwise you get caught pleasuring yourself in a bathroom stall.''

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