Friday, January 18, 2013

Justin Timberlake Brings Sexy Back (Again) -- But It's Just Not the Same in a "Suit & Tie"

Talented and entertaining as he is, Justin Timberlake has never been a particularly innovative or revolutionary pop star. He's good at what he does (with excellent taste in producers -- take a bow, Timbaland), but years from now, long after that other Justin (Bieber) exits puberty, we'll all remember Justin No. 1 as the guy who once brought sexy back, but not necessarily as someone who ushered in a truly future-sex-love sound (not the way Burn-era Usher did), or the once-greatest dancer/inspiration for millions of young Americans who got talent.

In other words, he's not the next Michael Jackson -- nor will he ever be.

Lately, Timberlake seems to have given up on that anyway, spending more time making movies than music. His last studio album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, came out way back in 2006, before the world had even heard of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Adele (or Bruno Mars, One Direction and Justin Bieber, for that matter). Since then, Timberlake has been mostly focused on acting. Despite an auspicious Hollywood breakthrough as Napster founder Sean Parker in 2010's The Social Network -- I'll excuse the Academy for overlooking him in the Best Supporting Actor category since they passed over his far more deserving costar Andrew Garfield, too -- and a steady stream of work, including a role in the upcoming Coen Brothers film, Inside Lewyn Davis, his Hollywood career still feels mid-level at best.

I mean, what has he really done for us lately? The Trouble with the Curve? A Coen Brothers film is always an event, but is anyone really looking forward to the next "Justin Timberlake film"? Not the way we've been anticipating the next Justin Timberlake album. Since he's no Ryan Gosling in the acting department, and he lacks Channing Tatum's sexy back (and front), what this guy needs is a hot film franchise to call his own in order to make his movie career worth shoving his music career so far to the sidelines for.

Now would seem as good a time as any to return to his presumed first love, music. He has a new solo album, The 20/20 Experience (how Prince, whom Timberlake might do well to emulate in other ways, too, now that he's apparently moved on from his Jacko-like aspirations), on the way, and a first single, "Suit & Tie," that could use some flashy accessories. Unfortunately, in this case, that wouldn't be Jay-Z, on out-of-nowhere and out-of-place guest rap duty. My initial reaction as I listened to the horn-laced mid-tempo come-on, which is similar in musical spirit to the old-fashioned soul of Mrs. Z (that'd be Beyoncé) on 4, was mild disappointment: We impatiently waited all these years for this?

It's a solid song, by no means a dud, but if Timberlake is never going to be an innovator, he at least could have bought sexy back with a little bit more swagger. He sounds strangely muted on "Suit & Tie," as if he's testing the water, dipping in one toe at a time, rather than just diving in and making a big ass splash. He's going to have to work a lot harder than this to make me stop playing Frank Ocean's "Thinkin' 'Bout You" on repeat all day.

It sounds as if Timberlake's approach to acting -- capable and professional -- has crossed over into his approach to music. As a songwriter, he's never dug deep, but his fellow singing-thespian Jennifer Lopez can massacre lines like "My killer, my filler, yeah, you're a classic/ And you're all mine tonight" in a deep diva sleep. If only "Suit & Tie" were half as exciting as "On the Floor," which has been in heavy rotation in my head, on my iPod and in Bangkok's DJ Station since the summer of 2011.

Despite its decided lack of wow!, I imagine "Suit & Tie" will have a short trip to No. 1, which might not be such a bad thing. God knows I'm sick of seeing Bruno Mars there! Meanwhile, though, I'll be waiting (still impatiently) for Timberlake to doff the formalities and slip into something more comfortable and, well, hot, than a "Suit & Tie" on his next single.

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