FutureSex/LoveSounds, Justin Timberlake’s sophomore release, single handily changed the face of pop music for the next decade.
And on top of its four Grammy nominations—Timberlake won two for Best Dance Recording and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration—the album solidified Timberlake as “The Prince of Pop.”
The tracks on FutureSex/LoveSounds cover everything the modern male experiences while pursuing love: infatuation, seduction, sex, and heartbreak. But Timberlake’s second album isn’t just a collection of libidinous tunes.
Within the lyrics is hidden a pop opera that follows the story of one character’s night out at a club—each song acting as a snapshot within a larger photo mosaic. And when viewed as a complete story, Timberlake’s second album makes a powerful comment on the influence of sexual fantasy.
Before I jump into the story hidden within this album, I need to, as Timberlake says: “paint you a picture,” about what transpired before FutureSex/LoveSounds came into existence. Here’s the TL;DR:
After leaving ‘NSYNC, and releasing his first solo album, Justified, Timberlake felt “burnt out” with the music scene. So he became an actor.
But somewhere around the mid-2000’s Timberlake became upset with the state of pop music, and decided to rekindle his relationship with Timbaland for his next record.
Off the movie screen, and back in the studio, Timberlake (and Timbaland) pulled influence for the next album from artists like Prince, David Bowie, The Strokes, Coldplay, The Killers, and David Byrne (The Talking Heads).
Here’s where it gets super interesting. Minus the one song Timberlake recorded with Rick Rubin, JT didn’t write down a single lyric on paper—every lyric on the album was improvised.
“Everybody knows he’s talented, but this dude wrote that whole album without touching a pen or paper. I’m like, ‘What type of shit is this?’ I’ve heard stories about Jay-Z or Biggie doing that, but I’ve never heard of a singer doing that. I think it’s some sort of superpower.” – Danja Rolling Stone 2006 Cover Story interview
Of course, Timberlake claims that FutureSex/LoveSounds was not autobiographical; but he admits that he did draw on some personal experiences. So if he improvised the entire album, sans a solitary song, where did the inspiration for these lyrics come from?
It’s All About Sex
There’s something visceral about sexual fantasies. And in a study from 2007, scientists from the Department of Personality, Evaluation and Psychological Treatment of the University of Granada found that in men’s imaginations (or sexual fantasies) heighten their sex drive. But what happens when you become everyone’s fantasy? Do your fantasies change when you could have anyone you desire?
Fame isn’t an easy burden to bear. And in Timberlake’s case, his level of fame opened the chance for him to have any woman (or man) he wanted. JT was and still is, a sexual fantasy for thousands of people worldwide.
But there’s no excitement in that; there’s no thrill of the chase. And that’s what fame robbed from Timberlake. And that’s what FutureSex/LoveSounds is all about: If Timberlake can’t have fantasy in real life, why not set out to create that story and tell it with music.
The Future is Filled with the Sounds of Sex
The first track and the album title share the same name. And when you examine the lyrics from a distance, what you hear is the story of the singer’s infatuation with a woman that he’s attempting to woo. Justin’s steamy vocals that invoke a sense of fantasized sexual exploits kicks off the album (and the night within the larger story).
However, this fantasy isn’t happening on the dance floor. This fantasy is carried out in Timberlake’s mind before he even gets to the club; he’s at work, or on his way home from a long workweek, and dreaming of the night that’s ahead of him. His hope is that tonight—the future—ends with sex and the sounds of love. Before he’s ever set foot in the club, Timberlake is already dreaming of “what might be.”
And that’s what the title track, FutureSex/LoveSound, is all about: imagination.
Bring that SexyBack
What do you think about when you hear the word sexy? Do you conjure images of sultry and seductive men or women in your mind? That’s what you assumed the first released track off of FutureSex/LoveSounds was all about, right? Being “sexy?”
Critics thought the same thing. But because they’re too wrapped up in their own self-indulgence, they missed what the song is really about. It isn’t about sex. SexyBack is about confidence. And not just his confidence, but the confidence he shares with his posse that evening.
“Justin [Timberlake] goes in the chorus ‘Go head be gone with it’, I called the song ‘Be Gone With It’, just to label it. So they’re developing this song and they’re going nuts and loving it, and as they play it, and I’m like: ‘I don’t think this hook is strong enough.’ But then, at the very last minute, Justin very, very cleverly decided to call it ‘Sexyback‘, and that changed the whole dimension of the song. The first thing you hear when you listen to the song is ‘I’m bringing sexy back’, and after that you don’t care or don’t notice that there is no hook. And then there’s the unique thing of Timbaland acting as a narrator, saying things like ‘take it to the bridge’, or ‘yeah’. Every time Justin leaves a space, he fills it in. It’s two guys interacting.”
SexyBack is that part of the night where Timberlake’s character is getting ready for the club: he’s got a new shirt, shoes, a sleek jacket that makes him look and feel amazing. He’s more confident than he’s ever been.
It doesn’t matter who else is in the club or what they’re wearing—he looks better than every motherfucker there. He’s got swagger that screams, “All you ‘Situation wannabes’ better get ready cause tonight, I’m the King of the club; I might even take the girl you’re dancing with.”
(He hits us with a little foreshadowing here as the idea that Timberlake can take any girl he wants becomes interesting later on since he becomes a victim of this very thing.)
Storytelling Elements of FutureSex/LoveSounds
Music has been used to tell stories since the first caveman slapped his knee in rhythm and grunted out a tale around the fire. And over the centuries, musicians have experimented with storytelling elements within their work.
And Timberlake continued that trend by using preludes and interludes on FutureSex/LoveSounds. A prelude is a piece of music that works as an introduction to a more important movement within the piece. And interludes are pieces that separate parts of a song or acts in a play.
On this album, the preludes/interludes provide a unique musical experience not seen on pop albums of the time.
But in the context of the club story, they act as transitions. And the” Let Me Talk To You Prelude” transition is about Timberlake and Timbaland designating their “loves” for the night, which acts as a set-up for the most important aspect of contemporary male relationship pursuits: the chase—the most playful of all sexual fantasies.
The chase has begun at the start of “My Love.” And it’s here that Timberlake’s fantasies start to accelerate.
Lyrically, JT is falling hard. He’s beginning to build long term fantasies like holding her hand on the beach, vacationing in the countryside, and making her his lady. Whatever pheromones are oozing out of this mystery woman on the dance floor, they’re making Timberlake lovesick.
All the sexiness that he brought back earlier, that peacock like confidence he exuded, seems to disappear when Timberlake pleads through the lyrics for his love to, “don’t give [it] away.” But she isn’t giving him a sign of her plans. That’s why T.I. says, “I don’t know what she hesitatin’ for, man,” right before he goes into his rap.
Timberlake is drunk; not on booze, but on his infatuation with this woman at the club. And thus begins the next track, with its own interlude:” Lovestoned/I Think She Knows.”
Stoned by a Gorgon
Like Medusa, the woman JT’s been dancing and flirting with has him stoned (by love). And as she continues to tantalize and fan the flames of Timberlake’s fantasies with the movement of her body, Justin’s only thought is: I hope she’s goin’ home with me tonight.
The woman in the song can read Timberlake like a book, though. She knows he’s in love. And so his heart begins to race with anticipation; this plays out in the song around the four-minute mark when most of the instrumentation drops out, and all that’s left is a simple strum of some strings, the percussion of hand drums, and the beatboxing exhales of Timberlake.
And then, Timberlake hits us with an interlude that turns the story on its head. The two tracks in the middle of FutureSex/LoveSounds interrupt Timberlake’s building sexual tension by drastically changing the tone and mood. And you can feel this shift from anticipation to trepidation in the first interlude.
The end of the first act of our story ends with “What Goes Around…” and the second interlude “…Comes Around.”
Instead of going home with the girl he’d been flirting and dancing with all night, she leaves him for someone better (someone who brought more sexy back). So what does JT do?
Well, like any heartsick 20-something, all Timberlake can wish for in this instance is a little schadenfreude. And that’s what happens at the end of What Goes Around: Timberlake dreams up, “paints this picture,” of what’s going to happen in the future with this douchebag his “love” dumped him for.
You spend your nights alone
And he never comes home
And every time you call him
All you get’s a busy tone
I heard you found out
That he’s doin’ to you what you did to me
Ain’t that the way it goes
And it’s here where the tone of the album, and Timberlake’s character, completely shifts again.
Rebound: Get Back in the Game
The second act of our story opens with “Chop Me Up,” the most aggressive track on the album. And in the context of “one night at the club,” where this track falls makes sense: Timberlake has decided it’s best to head back and convene with his boys and reorganize his plan of attack. Because either he can head home alone and jerk off in a pool of his own tears about the girl he didn’t get, or he can dust himself off and get back in the game.
Timberlake decides to get back in the game. But this time, he’s approaching it differently; his demeanor has completely changed, and his attitude is far more braggadocio. (This is reflected in the rap lyrics of his boys Timbaland and Three 6 Mafia.)
With a new attitude, he’s now found a new “sexy lady” to chase. And he begins tossing out more pick-up lines in “Damn Girl.” And again Timberlake quickly becomes infatuated. He becomes so hypnotized by the leading lady of act two that he equates how he’s feeling to “summer love.”
Let’s Get it On
Summer is short. But like the season, the love created during these months can be sultry. And when it comes to fantasy: hot, steamy, and passionate sex (even if it’s played out in your mind) is some of the most titillating sexual desires you can have.
Once more, Timberlake uses a prelude to set the mood for the rest of the album. Now his fantasy is about to come true as Timberlake is engaging in foreplay with act two’s leading (sexy) lady. The culmination of the night ends with the ballad, “Until the End of Time,” where Timberlake completes his sexual fantasy.
A Wee Stretch
I do have to make one small stretch here. Technically, “Losing My Way’ is about a documentary Timberlake saw on meth; but, in the context of a night at the club, it “can” fit into the overall narrative of the album.
Viewed as a conversation the next morning with his boys from the club, “Losing My Way,” is Timberlake confessing that he’s tired of the club scene. His actions from the previous night, and what rejection turned him into, don’t define the “man” that he wants to be.
I used to be the man in my hometown
Until I started to lose my way
It all goes back to when I dropped outta school
Having fun, I was living the life
But now I got a problem with that little white rock
See I can’t put down the pipe
He doesn’t like who he becomes at the club. It’s as if he’s a drug addict—a meth head. He’s lost himself in the trance-like world of clubs and hookups, and he’s ready for a change. All he wants to do is, “take all those wrongs and make them right.”
And for Timberlake, it starts with the girl he slept with last night.
I’m Not the Man You Think I Am
Overwhelmed by the guilt of his actions from the previous night, Timberlake calls the girl he hooked up with and explains his actions from the previous night to her. All of it.
Timberlake felt something for this girl, and in “(Another Song) All Over Again” he’s laying his heart out for her, letting her know that if she will give him a chance, he can show her the man he truly is.
…if you would let me try to love you
So please give me another chance to write you another song and take back those things I’ve done
Cause I’ll give you my heart if you would let me start all over again
Musically, FutureSex/LoveSounds is a masterpiece; it’s arguably as influential and game changing, if not better than Thriller. On one album, Timberlake infused nearly every genre on Earth: funk, rock, new wave, gospel, soul, dance/techno, R&B, and more, mixing them together into one cohesive and intoxicating club opera.
The hidden genius behind the album isn’t just in the amalgamation of popular genres of music. Under the guise of a collection of dance-inspired hits, Timberlake crafted a photo mosaic story that comments on the power of sexual fantasy in our lives.
And I’ll be goddamned if this isn’t one of the best works of art ever created. Period.