March 20, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

For the past decade, the pursuit of credibility — both artistic and ”street” — has been a curse upon the land of pop. Many have wrestled with it, and the struggle is never pleasant to behold.

Current teen pop would appear to be immune to the credibility gap, but it’s begun creeping into this genre as well. For Christina Aguilera and the Backstreet Boys, cred means gaining respect (and a sales boost) from grown-ups by way of homogeneous, inoffensive lite-FM ballads. The trend continues with ‘N Sync’s No Strings Attached, on which the gawkiest-looking teen idols ever manufactured attempt to demonstrate they’re not well-mannered and groomed careerists but hip-hopping party boyz.

The overhaul began with the January release of ”Bye Bye Bye,” the first of the album’s inevitable string of singles. With its stuttering beat and blasts of laser-gun synths, the song is more robust than anything on ”’N Sync,” their wimpy debut, and the kiss-off lyrics are meant to exhibit a newfound virility. For the duration of ”No Strings Attached,” Lance, JC, Joey, Justin, and Chris are equally determined to prove their get-downness.

On the positive tip — as the boys would no doubt say — they’ve made a livelier, more groove-friendly record than have any of their male peers. On the less than positive tip, they do so by adapting a high school locker’s worth of hammy, agonizingly contrived African-American vocal mannerisms. In the gauzy funk of ”It’s Gonna Be Me,” they stretch out words like ”babe” into ”bayyyyb,” resulting in unintentional parodies of R&B singing. Their cover of Johnny Kemp’s ’80s hit ”Just Got Paid” is dutiful, but the sound of ‘N Sync crooning phrases like ”lookin’ fly” and ”pump that jam while I’m gettin’ down” only illustrates how white they are. And let’s not get started on ”Bringin’ da Noise,” a drip-hop hooray that sports the year’s most excruciatingly faux title to date.

The group’s best performances on ”No Strings Attached” arrive only when they drop the pretenses. The album’s least contrived and most pleasurable moments are its ballads — the Richard Marx (!)-penned ”This I Promise You,” with its earnestly angelic harmonies, and ”I’ll Be Good to You,” which has an effortless, light-R&B swing. Neither is as great as the Backstreet Boys’ ”I Want It That Way,” but at least ‘N Sync stop trying to be little punishers and finally revel in their limp-biscuit selves.

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