Hear Me Out: Justin Timberlake, Kacey Musgraves

By Chris Azzopardi

Justin Timberlake, 'The 20/20 Experience'

Sexy's back, but not like you remember it: After seven long, hard, long years without Justin Timberlake at the pop-scene forefront, the creative chameleon finally gives acting a break and gets back behind the mic on his own terms, with a novel project that's risky and rewarding. But not at first. It seems, initially, the "The 20/20 Experience" might just be the longest Robin Thicke album ever (cooey come-ons, slinky beats and a 70-minute running time, that's why), but over time, it becomes clearer: Timberlake has this niche of sophisticated ladies' man pop down, bucking any comparisons the deeper he reaches with every falsetto dip, meandering beat or old-school sweep. Point is: JT owns the hell out of this album. Having been out of the game for so long, Timberlake rarely succumbs to fab gimmicks or tries to recreate his solo debut, "Justified," or its visionary follow-up, and his career pinnacle, "FutureSex/LoveSounds." Justin's evolution is still a retro affair, as demonstrated by the chic Motown-inspired throw-down "Suit & Tie" and the baritone harmonizers on the brassy '70s-styled slow jam "That Girl," but the real appeal is Timberlake's innate ambition: Even though he's artistically misguided - not every epic wannabe warrants a seven-minute drag-out, and coda "Blue Ocean Floor" turns Frank Ocean into parody - his innovativeness and just plain irresistibility on songs like the beat-embellished Miami Sound Machine-ish "Let the Groove Get In" and endearing JT throwback "Mirrors" can't be ignored. By rethinking a tried-and-true format, Timberlake doesn't just reenter the pop fold with inspired ideas and infectious poise. He challenges you to believe in him all over again. Grade: B

Kacey Musgraves, 'Same Trailer Different Park'

Pot smoking, hookups, homosexuality - you won't hear Reba McEntire, and probably not even Taylor Swift, taking on that taboo trifecta. Kacey Musgraves, though, is a rebel with a cause - think Miranda Lambert - and she's about to change country music one fearless tune at a time. The 24-year-old's major-label debut, "Same Trailer Different Park," first made noise with its buzz-worthy first single "Merry Go 'Round" last year, and not just because it wasn't another I-love-my-truck, boys-rule, beer-guzzling good time, or a PSA power ballad made for the Carrie Underwood crowd. Instead of romanticizing small-town life, Musgraves fully exposed it and, in turn, introduced herself as an artist boldly going where no country artist had before. She goes there a lot with this set of playfully important and tragedy-inclined songs, showcasing an abundance of charisma, candor and fresh-faced talent. The matter-of-fact songwriting is just wicked good. "Follow Your Arrow" embraces non-conformity despite social disapproval - hook up with a boy (or a girl, "if that's something you're into") or smoke a joint if you want (she would) - but reveals more than just a gal who'd gladly go to a gay bar with you: As progressively anti-country as she may let on, this old soul likes her music more Loretta Lynn than Taylor Swift. That kind of traditional sound masks the casual-sex theme of "It Is What It Is," and also turns the little ditty "My House" into the trashiest, most endearing love song you've ever heard. Move over, Reba. Kacey Musgraves is the future of country music. Grade: A

Megan Hilty, 'It Happens All the Time'

With "Smash" given the dreaded shift-to-Saturday death sentence, now's the time for breakout star Megan Hilty to jump musical-show ship. Off she goes with "It Happens All the Time," making a wimpy impression that fails to establish the thespian's solo career outside of the fact that she can sing like a pro (we knew that) and has an impressive iTunes playlist. Besides a few so-so originals, "No Cure" standing out most (and that's not saying much, considering the others are tepid, too), Hilty's covers are bold left-of-center choices that her vanilla voice can't capture: "The Blower's Daughter" and "Safe and Sound" require rawness that's just not there. Get this girl some Broadway tunes to belt ASAP.

Kerli, 'Utopia'

Kerli is so club-made at the top of her third release that when "Love Me or Leave Me" comes three songs in, it's hard to believe this is the same chick who was just singing about crazy kids. Said piano ballad is a heartbreaking dialogue with a lover who's left her broken heart in limbo - should she move on, or let it break? - and Kerli's affected vocal quiver is so awesomely reminiscent of Sia. Not that the Estonia dance queen's bangin' beats aren't similarly potent: "Can't Control the Kids" is a frantic piece of feet-to-the-floor rebellion, and "The Lucky Ones" lets her get away with old-school techno only because you can't resist the track's infectious positivity.

Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at http://www.chris-azzopardi.com.
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