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Justin Timberlake

From the moment 'N Sync dropped their bubblegum-pop debut in 1998, it was obvious that blond charmer Justin Timberlake would be the boy band's breakout star. Four years later, Timberlake finally kicks off his solo career with 2002's surprisingly soulful, R&B-and hip-hop-drenched Justified. Vocally, the Tennessee native sounds more than ever like his idol, Michael Jackson, most noticeably on the pulsating, Neptunes-produced single, "Like I Love You," where Timberlake even yelps la Jacko. In all, the Neptunes helped craft about half of the disc's 13 songs, including the string- and-synth-laden "Last Night" and the disco-inspired "Rock Your Body." For the rest, Timberlake looked primarily to hip-hop kingpin Timbaland, who applied his trademark techniques to the slinky, bass-heavy club thumper "(And She Said) Take Me Now," featuring Janet Jackson, and the dramatic, synth-and-beat box-accented original "Cry Me a River," on which a wronged Justin -- who puts his own lyrical stamp on most of the songs -- takes potshots at an ex, possibly Britney Spears. In his shimmering falsetto, he sings: "You don't have to say what you did/I already know/I found out from him." Oops, looks like Brit did it again. While Justified is obviously conceived as a springboard to grown-up, international superstardom, Timberlake doesn't completely forsake his core audience, closing the disc with the syrupy, Brian McKnight-produced ballad, "Never Again," on which he once again bemoans lost love. " 'Forgive me' says that I should give you one more try/But it's too late/It's over now," he coos, and one can already imagine an accompanying, sepia-tone video astride the TRL countdown. Whether he's singing the teen-pop breakup blues or conjuring images of Jackson in his prime, Timberlake assures that his ascent to solo stardom is more than Justified. Tracy E. Hopkins

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