The Men Who Would Be Prince

Photo: Courtesy of Jive Records (Timberlake) and The Chamber Group (OutKast)

For musicians, Prince is like the East Texas oil field: a vast source of natural energy that, if not quite limitless, runs deep enough to last another few decades. There are at least seven Prince incarnations available for appropriation—late-nineties crooners like Maxwell, for instance, picked up on Prince, the Soul Man, while Diddy has clearly fallen under the influence of Prince, the Ceaseless Changer of Names. The most timeless, however, are the Sex Fiend and the Protean Genius, and it is these that inspire Justin Timberlake and OutKast, respectively, on their new albums, FutureSex/LoveSounds and Idlewild.

Timberlake has an agenda, and he has helpfully titled his first five tracks—“FutureSex/LoveSound,” “SexyBack,” “Sexy Ladies,” “My Love,” “LoveStoned”—to make it clear. The music is equally frisky. Produced by Timbaland, these songs update the early-eighties Minneapolis sound: tense drum machines, high-pitched synth squiggles, and staccato funk bass lines. The ballad “Until the End of Time” steals outright the thumping, backward-­processed Linn drums from Purple Rain’s “The Beautiful Ones.” And with “Losing My Way,” about a crack addict, Timberlake has even thrown in a piece of social commentary as unconvincing as “Sign ‘o’ the Times.”

He’s also been working on his pickup lines. “All I need is a moment alone / To give you my tone / And put you out of control,” he swears on “FutureSex/LoveSound.” And midway through “SexyBack,” he groans, “You see these shackles baby I’m your slave / I’ll let you whip me if I misbehave.” Male singers have a couple of ways to sound sexy. If blessed with elastic vocal cords, they can soar, dip, flutter, and break in a manner that serves as both an analogy for rapture and a metaphor for technical facility and self-control. Or, if blessed with a personality, they can work with knowingness, insinuation, and—most crucially—humor. Prince deployed both tactics; Timberlake has chosen the first. Unfortunately, his voice is neither deep enough for lines like “Daddy’s on a mission to please” nor hysterical enough for “I’ve got sexy ladies / All over the floor.” And so we are reminded that this is the same man who fumbled Janet Jackson’s bustier at the Super Bowl.

In upping the sexual ante, Timberlake is running away from himself, as the best song on the album, “My Love,” makes clear. With its stabbing techno riff, crunched-together mouth-popping noises, and wailing opera singer, the track is an obvious sequel to “Cry Me a River.” And working with lines like “I can see us holding hands / Walking on the beach our toes in the sand,” Timberlake’s small but fervent falsetto sounds so much more sincere—and exposes him for what he really is: a nice boy who’s better at being sappy than sexy. Part of what made Justified so enjoyable, after all, were charming asides like the ending of the opening track “Señorita,” when he asked “guys” to sing one verse and “ladies” to sing another.

The knock on Timberlake has always been that he owes his success to his producers. Timbaland obviously helps him out here again, but his touch is no guarantee of stardom. (If it were, then protégées like Kiley Dean and Nicole Wray would be household names.) At the very least, it can be said that Timberlake has excellent taste. If he hasn’t yet invented a persona intriguing enough to live up to his music, give him credit for being one of the few white men still brave enough to make black music.

Outkast pulled off the reverse move with “Hey Ya!,” making hip-hop that sounded and (in the clever video) looked like the Beatles. That single was so all-conquering that many people failed to notice that The Love Below, the André 3000–produced album on which it appeared (the other half of OutKast, Big Boi, turned in Speakerboxxx), was a half-baked mess. Like so many Prince albums, The Love Below was a concept suite about sex and spirituality that wore its eclecticism on its sleeve, dabbling in cabaret, psychedelia, and drum and bass. André spoke often of his desire to break free from the strictures of rap, and in return, critics hailed him as a Renaissance man. (Never mind that OutKast’s earlier, supposedly more limited albums are funkier and funnier than anything they’ve done lately.)

The problem with being a Renaissance man is that it sets the bar awfully high. Too high even for Prince, in fact, who aced the test of eclecticism on Sign ‘o’ the Times but stumbled when he started filling subsequent albums with competent but uninspired takes on techno, reggae, and ballroom dancing. The game is to sound casually brilliant, as if your merest tossed-off invention arrives fully formed in the world; the danger is formlessness (if you’re not a strong songwriter) or pastiche (if you are).

Formlessness was the problem on The Love Below, and it’s been addressed on Idlewild, the companion to a Prohibition-era movie starring André and Big Boi. The album is filled with piano-driven tunes that signify vaguely as jazzy—the obvious parallel is Under the Cherry Moon, Prince’s own jazzy movie—and while it’s no Parade (the soundtrack to Cherry Moon, and one of Prince’s best), it is entertaining and surprisingly consistent. Far better, in fact, than the movie would suggest—movie musicals need to be filled with showstoppers, but OutKast have put some of the album’s least catchy tunes onscreen. Why, for instance, doesn’t Idlewild conclude with “Mighty ‘O’,” a rave–meets–Cab Calloway track that summarizes the retro-futurism the band is trying to pull off here?

So far, Idlewild has absorbed the criticism that should have been leveled at their previous album. André 3000 needs to get back to rapping, goes the refrain; the band has lost touch with its hip-hop roots. Certainly, André’s wan singing on “Hollywood Divorce,” one of the best tracks here, pales next to the controlled fury of Lil’ Wayne’s guest verses. And Idlewild doesn’t have the highs of The Love Below, let alone Aquemini. But it’s far from a full-blown implosion. Like Prince in the nineties, OutKast may be condemned to a future of overlooked albums that are much better than you think.

Justin Timberlake. Jive.

Outkast. Laface.

The Men Who Would Be Prince