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Let's go back to last August at the MTV Video Music Awards. Justin Timberlake emerges on stage in a big-ass boom box, ready to world-premiere the debut single "Like I Love You" from his debut album, Justified. Flanked by a stable of dancers and a couple of rappers on loan from superproducers the Neptunes, Timberlake, fedora atop his head and fingerless gloves encasing his hands, attempts to unveil the new Justin. The 'N Sync-less Justin. The Britney-less Justin. The Justin who comes from funky ol' Memphis, home to Stax Records, Beale Street and Elvis -- Elvis!
The public response following the performance days later wasn't so kind. It wasn't necessarily panned, mind you, just greeted with sort of a collective blah. Maybe it was the hat and gloves, but comparisons to Michael Jackson kept rolling off people's tongues. Apparently the new Justin needed some retooling.
Several months later, at the Soul Train Music Awards, Timberlake glides out on stage, sans hat and gloves, working an Ivory Lee haircut and goatee, and proceeds to plow through a medley of tunes from his album while executing meticulously choreographed dance moves that show off his rubbery rhythm. Immediately after the performance, the predominantly black audience stood on their feet, giving their thunderous props. Timberlake graciously (and gratefully) took a bow, triumphant in his success. The key element in Timberlake's master plan was revealed that night: You can throw together any kind of performance for white people and it wouldn't matter that much. But when you appear in front of a black audience, your ass better come correct.
Right from the jump, and alone among his 'N Sync cronies, Timberlake has wanted to be down with the black folk. Performing bubblegum-pop with four white dudes from Florida may have been a way of getting his foot in the door, but now that he's in the building he wants it known that he's a soul brotha at heart. Justified is Timberlake's "black album," an R&B album from start to finish, and with it Timberlake follows in the footsteps of other blue-eyed pop stars who've made R&B albums (David Bowie's Young Americans and Beck's Midnite Vultures immediately come to mind) in the hopes of winning over black audiences.
Timberlake's savvier than most. The fact that he hired contemporary black music's top production masterminds -- most notably, Timbaland and the Neptunes -- shows that he knows who to go to for instant black approval.
"Man, I feel like sonically, we're gonna push the urban and pop audience to really listen to what's going on," Timberlake told Vibe a while back. He knows it's foolish for him to neglect the pop audience that put him on the map, but it's the "urban" audience that's his main concern.
And what Justified justifies is Timberlake's conviction and perseverance in convincing "urban" listeners of his worthiness. The soul-loving Timberlake who crept out during 'N Sync's last album, Celebrity (especially on the quintet's R&B-radio favorite, "Gone"), is in full bloom on Justified. Timberlake tries to revitalize a bare, confident sense of sensitivity rarely explored in today's R&B. On Justified's best tracks, Timberlake forgoes the studly machismo of today's wife-beater-clad soul men such as Tyrese and Ginuwine in favor of letting his gentler emotions get the best of him. On the Timbaland-produced "Cry Me a River," Timberlake delivers the male equivalent to Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know," a bumping ode on a dead relationship and its bitter aftermath. Any man can lay on the macho bravado, Timberlake declares, but can he sing about getting ditched, about being left a shell of a man?
Outside of honky-tonkers, white boys who sound black are the ones most likely to consistently wear their emotions on their sleeve in song. The tradition runs from Hall & Oates ("She's Gone") to Rick Astley ("Together Forever") to Jon B. ("Someone to Love"). Joining Timberlake as a newcomer in this subgenre is Thicke, born Robin Thicke, the son of sitcom dad Alan Thicke and soap star Gloria Loring.
Thicke has written and produced songs for Mya, Brandy, Christina Aguilera and fellow teen-pop heartthrob-turned-R&B troubadour Jordan Knight; for a while there, it looked like he would give Timberlake a run for his money as White Soul Brother No. 1. Thicke's debut, Cherry Blue Skies, the inaugural release from Babyface's NuAmerica label, was set for release mere weeks before Timberlake's album dropped last November. Then NuAmerica blinked -- after several postponed release dates, Cherry stayed on the tree until April, and when it finally did come out, it had a new title (A Beautiful World) and a nekkid lady on the cover. Thicke's beach-bum mug was relegated to the back side.
Maybe NuAmerica knew Thicke couldn't compete with Timberlake: Thicke's offering isn't as consistent as Justified. Thicke does open up World quite compellingly with "Oh Shooter," which reveals to listeners why he's worthy of singing the blues, and even runs an aesthetic mile farther than Timberlake does on Justified. Set to a funky bass line and lazy guitar licks, Thicke recalls the time he was robbed at gunpoint at a (presumably black) club ("My hands up/My hands up/They want me with my hands up"). The point is obvious: He may be the offspring of '80s TV royalty, but the man has been in the thick of it.
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.
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.