Boy-Band Goody Two-Shoes Justin Timberlake Steps Out Of Line...For A Solo Dance

By Tom Sinclair
Updated September 20, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Justin Timberlake is preparing to serenade me.

Sitting in the kitchen of producer Timbaland’s Manhattan recording studio 24 hours after his amped-up appearance on the MTV Video Music Awards, the 21-year-old pop star tunes an acoustic guitar between sips of tea. Clad in a white track suit, he seems relaxed and focused on the task at hand. ”I’m not no Hendrix or Santana,” he says with a bashful smile. ”I took [guitar] lessons for about three weeks and got so bored with it I just figured I’d teach myself.”

He strums a few tentative chords, then launches into the ‘N Sync hit ”Gone,” which he wrote for Celebrity, the group’s 2001 album. ”There’s a thousand words that I could say/To make you come home,” he sings in a honey-dipped falsetto. ”Seems so long ago you walked away/Left me alone…”

Thoughts flood the mind: How many kazillion teenage girls would barter their weekly allowances in perpetuity to be here right now? Just how much would a bootleg recording of this intimate moment be worth? Most important: Is this really a song one straight guy should be singing to another?

Actually, Timberlake’s mini-concert isn’t intended as any kind of touchy-feely sensitive-male bonding ritual — he’s just demonstrating that, contrary to the opinions of naysaying critics, he’s a real musician, one for whom the creative process comes naturally. ”A lot of people want to act like songwriting is brain surgery,” he says. ”It’s not. It’s as easy as” — he plonks a chord cluster — ”that.”

Well, maybe. It remains to be seen if Timberlake’s present endeavor — launching a successful solo career outside the heretofore comfy confines of the ‘N Sync mother ship — will prove so simple.

Timberlake’s debut solo album, Justified, is due Nov. 5. It’s not your little sister’s pop music. To give it street cred and that state-of-the-art, club-friendly sheen, he’s enlisted the aid of some of hip-hop’s hottest producers — Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, Timbaland, Andre Harris and Vidal Davis, P. Diddy. The hope is that dazzling big production numbers like ”Senorita” and ”Cry Me a River” will decisively distance Timberlake from the sort of treacly teen pop that catapulted ‘N Sync to stardom. ”The bubblegum sound is old,” says Timberlake, whose personal tastes run to current rap and classic soul. ”That’s obvious. You can’t do ‘Bye Bye Bye’ twice.”

‘N Sync manager Johnny Wright (who comanages Timberlake with the singer’s mom and stepfather, Lynn and Paul Harless) agrees, going so far as to admit that ”the traditional five-member, male pop vocal group is starting to fizzle.” Wright thinks that Timberlake can both retain his core teen audience and attract new fans with Justified.

”As your musical tastes open up, at some point what you personally like and want to do might not be in the best interests of the group,” says Wright. ”So, when you have that passion, you have to step out and present it, and that’s what Justin did. All he wanted to do was go out and put some music on CD that was in his heart and get a reaction from fans one way or the other. This is all about the passion and the music that’s inside of him.”

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Justified (Music)

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