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Justified Comparison

Justin Timberlake moonwalks away from the teen-pop pack.

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Grizzlies season-ticket-holder Justin Timberlake claims Memphis in the opening moments of Justified, his late-2002-released solo debut, so does that mean the city can claim him right back? Of course, as much as civic boosters might want to add Timberlake to the portfolio, doing so would be a bit disingenuous. He may call Millington home, but Timberlake's career has a lot more to do with Orlando, and, more importantly, his music is purely mass-media, chart-pop progeny in which geography is totally irrelevant.

Besides, as Justified makes clear, the musical King that Timberlake is interested in emulating isn't a product of Graceland but Neverland. Justified is a blue-eyed answer to Michael Jackson's 1979 coming-out party Off the Wall, its intended homage telegraphed by admittedly silly liner photos that show Timberlake sartorially outfitted and posed to evoke vintage Jacko images. The good news -- as a week of comparison listening has convinced this critic at least -- is that Justified is the rare wannabe to match its model.

The comparison of the two records is unavoidable: Young, coltish male pop-star breaks from Svengali-driven teen-pop group that had been dominated by his presence (Jackson actually released several solo albums between his Jackson 5 stint and Off the Wall, but that album was both his first as an adult and his first outside of Motown) and teams up with super-producer(s) of the day (for Jackson, Quincy Jones; for Timberlake, Timbaland and the Neptunes, who produced 11 of 13 tracks) for a disco-fied bid for adulthood that happily turns into both a commercial sensation and a great album.

You might argue that Timberlake's vocal precocity is the result of his background as a showbiz kid (a product of Star Search, The Mickey Mouse Club, and the Orlando teen-pop factory) rather than a result of any actual life experience, but how does that make him any different from Jackson? Timberlake is no match for the young Jackson as a pure singer, his vocal instrument lacking the same ear-popping quality. But, if anything, Timberlake delivers the cagier and more personable vocal performance when it comes to selling a song or a persona, deftly deploying a deep vocabulary of tricks and affectations: asides, chuckles, falsetto sighs, cracked-voice ache, spoken-word over a beat, dynamic flourishes.

Some of Justified's finer vocal moments are borderline cutesy and probably certain to turn off listeners predisposed to dismiss him: the way he dips into falsetto to sing the girls' part of the male/female call-and-response on "Senorita" and the little chuckle after "Gentleman, good night. Ladies good mornin'" on the same song, the shout of "drums!" near the fade on "Like I Love You," and the soft-spoken-word that ends "Take It from Here." But these are moments more in line with the Jackson of "I'll Be There" than Off the Wall, a more erotic update of Jackson's preternaturally skilled vocal gravitas.

Though Justified scores big all over -- Timberlake delivering a credible Missy Elliott impersonation on "Right for Me," negotiating Timbaland's Eastern rhythms on "(Oh No) What You Got," asserting his vocal personality amid a Neptunes production that would bury a lesser artist on "Like I Love You" -- it stakes its claim as an honest-to-goodness great album with a three-song suite in the middle.

This section begins with the lovely ballad "Take It from Here" (a change of pace Ö la Off the Wall's "She's Out of My Life"), a confection so airy that it might be more worthy of DeBarge than Jackson. This is the track that most gives the lie to the somewhat popular theory that Justified is Timberlake as marionette, merely a product of Timbaland and the Neptunes' creative genius. In this case, Timberlake's relatively gentle persona seems to have driven the production, a swooning bed of strings and acoustic guitars that is more romantic than the Neptunes have ever sounded before, indeed more shameless in its elevation of beauty over attitude than seemed conceivable. (And put across with such aplomb that the song survives some of the record's clunkiest lyrics: "Let's fly away to Sweden/Through the Garden of Eden.")

The sequence is capped with another Neptunes track, the pure disco bliss of "Rock Your Body," which might be a knowing reference to the Off the Wall standout "Rock with You," the feverish rhythm-guitar that drives the Neptunes' track seemingly the sonic cousin of the same feature on Jones' original, with Timberlake riding the undeniable groove as effortlessly as Jackson.

But it's the middle song in this sequence that might set Justified apart. "Cry Me a River" (yep, the Britney Spears kiss-off single from last fall) is one of those dense, extraordinary Timbaland productions, a bittersweet symphony composed of rain sound effects, grave and ethereal sampled intro vocals, electro-classical melodic riffs, beat-box-like vocal snippets, skittery drums, and chantlike backup vocals, all adding up to a sonic maelstrom similar to but even more dramatic than Timbaland's Aaliyah masterpiece "Are You That Somebody?" This is "teen-pop" turned avant garde, in which Timberlake plays an aggrieved lover turned bitter and menacing, with Timbaland as the devil perched on his shoulder. If Justified were modeled on Prince rather than Jackson, "Cry Me a River" would be its "When Doves Cry," because there's no precedent for it on Off the Wall, and it's sure a lot weirder and scarier than Thriller's "Billie Jean."

Timberlake closes the record with an unbearably schmaltzy Brian McKnight ballad, as bad as anything *NSYNC ever recorded, as if to leave the listener with a little bit of doubt. But if any more evidence were needed to confirm the outrageous success of his transition from teen-pop pin-up to adult artist, Timberlake chose wisely in a tourmate. By sharing a bill with Christina Aguilera

for his homecoming concert this week at The Pyramid, the

effortlessness of Timberlake's emergence will only be underscored by the desperate awkwardness of Aguilera's similar attempt at career transformation.

Those looking for an embodiment of teen-pop growing pains or rooting for a pop tart to fall flat will have to settle for Aguilera, because, unlikely as it may seem, Timberlake has already leapt past such questions.

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