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The Justin Timberlake deep cut that almost makes Will.I.Am a tolerable presence

In Hear ThisA.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week: songs somehow involving Justin Timberlake.

The most shocking reveal of this past summer’s Legends Of Summer Stadium Tour—the co-headlining jaunt mounted by Jay Z and Justin Timberlake—wasn’t a sultry disco pastiche naïvely lifting its title from a campaign to end sexual violence against women. And it wasn’t the stunning disclosure that Timberlake’s “Mirrors” loses all of its poignancy when accompanied by building-sized video loops of the singer spinning ever so slowly. No, the biggest surprise of this 12-city tribute to two men’s cultural dominance involved Timberlake demonstrating that you can take the Mouseketeer out of Orlando, but you can never quite rid him of that Disney Channel- and Lou Pearlman-instilled hamminess. Ladies and gentlemen, one of this generation’s most visible avatars of sex and sophistication is also a huge goofball, an impression that’s only heightened when he’s standing next a figure of such crowd-flattening composure as Sean Carter. I’ve read criticisms that JT and Jay Z’s respective styles don’t quite mesh on their pair of collaborative 2013 singles, “Suit & Tie” and “Holy Grail,” but during their stop at Chicago’s Soldier Field, it wasn’t so much a question of lack of chemistry—it was more that they came off like a pop-music version of Looney Tunes bulldog Spike and his spunky, diminutive sidekick, Chester.

But JT can have the opposite effect, too, as heard on the FutureSex/LoveSounds deep cut “Damn Girl.” On the track, Timberlake returns a favor he performed for The Black Eyed Peas in 2003, trading his guest spot on the group’s breakthrough hit, “Where Is The Love?” for a guest verse by lead Pea Will.I.Am. In the following years, Will.I.Am and company would take the robot-R&B of FutureSex/LoveSounds to increasingly goony places, but on “Damn Girl,” he and Timberlake break off a vintage piece of dance-floor fodder, a falsetto-flecked number built around a sample from onetime James Brown bandleader J.C Davis. The track doesn’t make up for “Boom Boom Pow” or anything—the guest verse is pretty corny—but it does provide the second side of Timberlake’s sophomore album with a refreshingly human breather. The song would prove prophetic in multiple ways, its throwback sound presaging the wave of retro soul that would reach American shores when Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” raced up the Billboard charts the spring after FutureSex/LoveSounds’ release. (And even then it’s not Timberlake’s Motown homage—that’d be the Stevie Wonder-esque “Señorita.”)

Then again, “Damn Girl” still shows off the singer-songwriter’s cheeseball side, as its Davis-derived hook could easily be confused for that of a Burt Bacharach impression masquerading as a phonics lesson. I’ve listened to both tracks plenty of times in my life, and it could go either way, honestly.