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Filling the Blue-Eyed-Soul Hole

Justin Timberlake leads the charge of new melanin-challenged soul brothers

As with Christina Aguilera's Stripped, World finds Thicke jumping from style to style so often he forgets to find one of his own. "A Fifth of Beethoven" is reminiscent of the disco/funk of another soulful white boy, Jamiroquai's Jay Kay. "I'm A Be Alright" is practically a remake of Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up," complete with guys partying and talking shit in the background. "Make a Baby" even has him tripping through Strawberry Fields like he's John Lennon or something. All in all, it's pleasant enough stuff, but he needs to find his own voice.

By reminding black audiences of other artists -- especially black ones -- Thicke falls prey to the snare that has captured so many white performers looking to break into the soul game. Timberlake and Thicke so obviously model themselves after Michael Jackson, it's easy for black audiences to refer to them as rip-off artists -- but it's not entirely fair. It's easy to come up with a couple of male black soulsters whose emulation of the King of Pop is still more blatant. (Sisqó, anyone?)

And sound-alikes or no, there are more white guys who sound like other black guys on the way: The Neptunes are looking for the right time to drop an album from J. Vince, a white dude who guested on Kelis's Kaleidoscope album and sounds just like Usher, whereas DreamWorks Records has the Brit Sebastian Rogers, a Terence Trent D'Arby vocal doppelgänger who did a guest shot on Floetry's Floetic last year.

Don't worry. Timberlake hasn't started smoking Kools. That's just his soul smoldering.
Don't worry. Timberlake hasn't started smoking Kools. That's just his soul smoldering.

And in the end, it's likely only the jaded who care. Familiarity breeds contempt only for a few; for most, it breeds admiration. It's been proved time and time again that people are looking for the same old stuff in new packages. Like so many of their peers, Timberlake and Thicke are just looking to fit in, trying to get a place at the grown-ups' table so folks can hear their true voices. What's more, you could even go so far as to say they're helping to make R&B just as much a cross-cultural musical genre as rap is.

In a November 2002 New York Times profile of Timberlake, Thicke and Canadian soulster Remy Shand, music writer Neil Strauss pondered the question of why more white rappers have won credibility and acceptance than white R&B singers. "To make a broad generalization," Strauss wrote, "hip-hop is yang; it is about making it in the streets. R&B is yin; it is about making it in the sheets. Not since the height of new-romantic, new-wave androgyny has it been trendy for a white male to be yin."

Well, it's a new era, and there are some cool-sounding white boys out there making it known that yin is in.

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