Justin Timberlake :: Homeboy Alone

Justin Timberlake “I just said I’m going to stylize this to my own liking,” says Timberlake during a conference call. “I come from Memphis. I come from a blues- and country- and gospel-inspired city.

Not that the ‘NSync superstar and Memphis/Shelby Forest native has ever downplayed his local ties. Rather, the release for the 21-year-old singer’s solo debut, “Justified,” a record that finds Timberlake embracing his Southern identity more than he ever did – or could – with ‘NSync.

Justin Timberlake “I just said I’m going to stylize this to my own liking,” says Timberlake during a conference call. “I come from Memphis. I come from a blues- and country- and gospel-inspired city.

“When you write songs for ‘NSync, even the ones that I penned, you have to realize that you are 20 percent, that (member) Joey (Fatone) is from Brooklyn, for instance – he’s not going to say ‘Y’all,’ that’s not something that’s going to come out of his mouth. People need to be comfortable singing something just as much as they would be comfortable saying it.”

Timberlake admits it took him a few weeks into making the album to come out of his own ‘NSync shell. Once he did, he came up with an album that may surprise some old fans in that it downplays teen pop for the more urban – and mature – expressions of soul and hip-hop. But the star singer, much like his famed predecessor Elvis Presley, has always had a love for black music. The remix single of ‘NSync hit Girlfriend, after all, featured St. Louis rapper Nelly, whose latest album, “Nellyville,” finds Timberlake filling the guest role.

“Obviously, hip-hop has had a big influence on me,” says Timberlake. “I enjoy the expression and the culture and the fact that it came from something so small and turned into something so mainstream.”

JustifiedAnd it’s two of hip-hop’s biggest producers, the Neptunes and Timbaland, who helmed most of “Justified.” They even brought along a few of their artists, Clipse and Bubba Sparxxx respectively, to lay down raps. Also contributing are Brian McKnight and Janet Jackson, who has gone from being an influence to a friend (and a rumored companion, something Timberlake denies).

The result is an album with a major streak of funkiness that will recall the breakthrough effort of another boy singer who stepped away from a popular band to go solo: “Off the Wall” by Michael Jackson.

Timberlake, who says he finds American Idol “a little creepy,” thinks his fans will understand the shift.

“If you were 16 or 17 when ‘NSync came out and you like that certain sound, you’re not that age anymore. You’re the same age as me because I was 16 or 17 when ‘NSync came out with I Want You Back and Tearin’ Up My Heart. My tastes have changed. . . . The bubblegum sound, that has changed. I don’t think people want to hear that so much anymore. I know that I don’t. And that’s why I did this record.”

Timing would seem to be right. After some five years and three multiplatinum albums, the Orlando, Fla.-formed ‘NSync – Timberlake, Fatone, Chris Kirkpat rick, J. C. Chasez and Lance Bass – has ridden the crest of megastardom as few popular acts ever have. Their 2000 album, “No Strings Attached,” still is the bar to measure all opening week record sales, an impressive 2.4 million units to be precise.

Yet a few short years is a long time in the music business, even for someone as ubiquitously familiar as Timberlake, whose first taste with pop fame came at age 11 when he joined the New Mickey Mouse Club.

‘NSync’s other members are also busy pursuing new projects. Kirkpatrick has launched a clothes line, FuMan Skeeto; Fatone, who had a cameo in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, stars in the Broadway musical Rent; Chasez has been producing electronica; and Clinton, Miss., member Bass has been training for a highly publicized journey into space.

Unlike Timberlake’s split with former girlfriend Britney Spears, don’t look at ‘NSync’s diverging paths as any kind of breakup. They will continue to make records, says Timberlake, and they’ll make them not for money but for camaraderie.

Justin Timberlake”These are my friends, and they’ll always be my friends, and I would never turn my back on them,” he says. “Everything’s still cool.”

Timberlake, who plans to tour solo behind the new album, is the one, however, to seize the solo career momentum.

He has even branched out into philanthropy, having established the Justin Timberlake Foundation to advance music education. The first recipient was his former school, E. E. Jeter Elementary School, where he was a self-described class clown. The Commercial Appeal records note it was also the school he represented in a 1995 Memphis-Shelby County spelling bee (he ranked 95 and misspelled “wharf”).

According to Jeter principal Paulette Bond, the charity has bestowed $50,000 to be used for music education programs only. She says Jeter, the largest recipient, will share the money with Woodstock Middle School.

Its most famous student could have easily forgotten his humble beginnings as the talented son of Shelby Forest parents Lynn Harless and Randy Timberlake. But Memphis grounds Timberlake in more ways than one, whether it’s the falsetto ideal of such songs as Al Green’s Love & Happiness, Three 6 Mafia, or the closest thing to heaven this Dixie boy knows, his grandmother Sadie Bomar’s peach cobbler.

Despite the media hoopla and tabloid tidbits, Timberlake feels entirely justified in the choices he’s made. It all starts with the home, he says with the kind of modest ring the King of Rock and Roll could have appreciated.

“I was raised in a good family,” says Timberlake. “I’m close to my mother, close to my father, and that’s definitely had an impact on life, seeing how crazy it’s gotten and how my work schedule dictates my life.

“I am in the end a guy from Memphis, Tenn., who was lucky enough to do what I’m doing.”

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