"Gentlemen,good night. Ladies, good morning ..." The announcement that began Justin Timberlake's 2002 solo debut introduced us to a pop star beyond reproach, proving the former candy-ass had the smarts and self-assurance to draw appeal far beyond mall corridors or the daft and dying boy-band demographic. With vintage synths and beatboxed grunts, Timberlake's sophomore record doesn't so much slump as it does strive at times too hard for the youthful ease of his debut. It's not that he's too old for this shit. The anxious gnash of "SexyBack," the record's first single, proves he's still got plenty of vigor. But there's something gravid in the tune's swagger that suggests Justin's been around the block once or twice since our last tryst together. When we get to the sprawling seven-minute "Lovestoned/ I Think She Knows Interlude," it's much more of the classic JT sound that first made us damp, and when the tune disintegrates into falsetto and big beats, it's some of the most evocative stuff here, even if his pout is clearly play acting. It's even easy to forgive the anti-drug moralizing on "Losing My Way" ('cause, sure, casual sex and alcohol are fine, but crack? For shame!) amid the glut of tossed-off bangers like "Summer Love" and "Chop Me Up" (with a terrifically sleazy contribution from Three Six Mafia). But it's in the huge, trance-driven chorus of "My Love" where Timberlake delivers some of the most inventive pop music in the club and makes us forget that, while still in his mid-20s, he's already flirting with being too old or too popular to still be its hungriest baller. Nate Cavalieri
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