Right from the jump, Justin Timberlake has wanted to be down with the black folk. Performing bubblegum pop with four white dudes from Florida may have been a way of getting his foot in the door, but now that he's in the building, he wants it known that he's a soul brotha at heart. Timberlake's debut, Justified, is his "black album," an R&B record from start to finish, and with it, Timberlake follows in the footsteps of other blue-eyed pop stars who've made R&B albums (David Bowie's Young Americans and Beck's Midnite Vultures immediately come to mind) in hopes of winning over black audiences.
Timberlake is savvier than most. The fact that he hired contemporary black music's top producing masterminds -- most notably, Timbaland and the Neptunes -- shows that he knows whom to go to for instant black approval.
And what Justified justifies is Timberlake's conviction and perseverance in convincing "urban" listeners of his worthiness. The soul-loving Timberlake that crept out during 'N Sync's last album, Celebrity (especially on the quintet's R&B-radio favorite, "Gone"), is in full bloom on Justified. He tries to revitalize a bare, confident sensitivity rarely focused on in today's R&B. On the best tracks on Justified, Timberlake forgoes the studly machismo of today's wifebeater-clad soul men such as Tyrese and Ginuwine in favor of letting his gentler emotions get the best of him. On the Timbaland-produced "Cry Me a River," Timberlake delivers the male equivalent of Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know," a bumping ode to a dead relationship and its bitter aftermath. Any man can lay on the macho bravado, Timberlake declares, but can they sing about getting ditched and being left a shell of a man?