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Justin Timberlake’s heart belongs to Jodeci

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Enough with the MJ comparisons. Justin Timberlake’s true roots can be found at the other end of the R&B spectrum.
Lex Cannon

YouTube this: “Justin Timberlake Jodeci.” You’ll find a remarkably cheesy clip, from The Mickey Mouse Club, late ’93 or early ’94, when Timberlake was around 13. He’s in full curly-haired glory, singing Jodeci’s smash ballad “Cry for You,” wearing the baggiest linen outfit ever created. Try not to be distracted by those clothes, or the fact that future ’NSYNC-mate JC Chasez and (WTF?) Ryan Gosling are crooning along with him, or the fact that an impossibly young, gangly Britney Spears shows up at the end for the Mouse Club sign-off.

Mickey Mouse Club - from YouTube.com

Why should you watch this, aside from the obvious hilarity? Because it’s proof that the dynamic but short-lived Jodeci was a major influence on one of the world’s most popular entertainers, not to mention most R&B music today. Timberlake, who grew up in Memphis, names soul singers like Al Green and Donny Hathaway among his early musical heroes. His full-spectrum talent and deeply embedded sense of showmanship draw Michael Jackson comparisons, but Timberlake wisely eschews Peter Pan peculiarity for a modern take on the traditional R&B loverman. In the grand Marvin Gaye way, he wants to sex you up. MJ, not so much.

Jodeci broke through on Uptown Records, an upstart that also launched the careers of Mary J. Blige and Sean (then Puffy, now Diddy) Combs. The group’s fusion of New Jack Swing and lovey-dovey balladry, composed by DeVante Swing and vocalized by Gospel-rooted brothers K-Ci and JoJo Hailey, pushed 1991 debut Forever My Lady into the R&B consciousness. Jodeci’s sound was distinct, and raunchy live performances and naughty offstage behavior created a reputation in stark contrast to clean-cut competitors Boyz II Men.

Timberlake’s boy-band days might have been all four-part harmonies and girl-squeal-inducing dance routines, but he was determined to get grown and sexy when striking out on his own. His first solo single, the Neptunes-charged “Like I Love You,” is all cocky and sh*t: “Ain’t nobody love you like I love you/You will know the difference when I touch you.”

The second of Jodeci’s three albums was its masterwork, 1993’s Diary of a Mad Band, rich in soaring ballads (“Cry for You,” “My Heart Belongs to U”) and edgy mid-tempo tracks (“Feenin’,” “What About Us”). It also extrapolated the rawness that kept the quartet closer to hip-hop than pop, an element that reached full bloom in the group’s oversexed swan song, The Show, the After Party, the Hotel, and ultimately prevented Jodeci from achieving crossover success.

Diary was pivotal in another way; DeVante maintained a stable of up-and-comers called the Swing Mob and let some of them pop up on that album. One was Missy Elliott. Another was Tim Mosley, dubbed Timbaland by DeVante. Timbaland, of course, has surpassed his mentor to become one of the most successful producers in pop music and an instrumental collaborator on Timberlake’s greatest hits: “Cry Me a River;” the entirety of FutureSex/LoveSounds, including “Sexy-Back” and “My Love;” and recent works “Suit & Tie” with Jay Z and “Mirrors.” The futuristic grooves that characterize the JT songs you sing along to are straight out of the Jodeci playbook.

And there’s more. There’s no understating the massive impact the legendary Saturday Night Live digital short “Dick in a Box” has had on Timberlake’s career. It fulfilled the promise that this kid could do more than sing and dance. It scored 30 million views on YouTube before NBC yanked it for Hulu exclusivity, led to future SNL appearances for Timberlake and endeared him to a new world of fans. And the inspiration for the characters he and Andy Samberg portrayed so perfectly were ’90s-era R&B singers, elaborately groomed in leather suits, hyper-horny and over-singing every note.

Like Timberlake and Samberg, today’s generation of “urban contemporary” performers are predominantly Jodeci fans; maybe only Prince and MJ rank higher. Robin Thicke, who was building a modest R&B career before Beetlejuicing all over Miley Cyrus, has been known to roll out a raspy cover of “Come and Talk to Me.” The-Dream, the genius producer behind massive hits like Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” also covers Jodeci in concert and has acknowledged their influence on his music, as has soulful crooner John Legend. Hip-hop stars shout out Jodeci on the regular; Drake made a whole song of it this summer called “Jodeci Freestyle.”

Like his summer touring partner Jay Z, Timberlake has evolved from an entertainer into a full-fledged mogul with his own brand. But at his core he’s an R&B singer, and he probably wouldn’t deny that. He also wouldn’t deny he’s a Jodeci fan, because no Jodeci fan would. Despite the corniness of the genre—the exaggerated performances, the leather pants—there’s transportive coolness and easy enjoyment in this music, no matter how dated it sounds today. JT might wish he hadn’t Mouse Clubbed it with Gosling back then, but he surely still knows the words to “Cry for You.”

Justin Timberlake November 29 & 30, 8 p.m., $53-$203. MGM Grand, 891-7777.

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Brock Radke is Las Vegas Weekly's food editor and author of the Strip-focused column The Incidental Tourist. He has written ...

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