Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience
Justin Timberlake is in the interesting position of being predominately referred to and thought of as a musician, even though he’s spent about the same amount of time as an actor. Think of it this way: *NSYNC released three albums and, all told, spent roughly five years on the world stage, then Timberlake released only two more albums of his own with a four-year gap separating them. But every moment in between, after and before those releases (if we’re counting his stint on The New Mickey Mouse Club), he’s spent starring in film and television, becoming a reliably crowd-pleasing host on Saturday Night Live and co-founding a clothing line. With so much else going on, in theory, it would be easy for JT to take his fan base’s goodwill for granted, going in for a cash grab for his inevitable “return to music,” since he could fall back on the rest of his ventures. But, remember, in the public’s eyes, he’s a singer first, so whatever eventually followed FutureSex/LoveSounds had to be good, had to be an “event album,” lest he damage his reputation. To that end, seven years later, he mostly succeeds with The 20/20 Experience, an opulent, blockbuster R&B record whose reach sometimes exceeds its grasp.
Collaborating with Timbaland again implies 20/20 will rehash FutureSex‘s twitchy, electro-disco, when actually, with the assistance of co-producer J-Roc and songwriter James Fauntleroy, this album is warmer and more diverse than its often chilly and calculated predecessor. There’s a loose feel here, where pop song conventions are eschewed in favor of progressive song structures and extended codas reminiscent of early and mid ’70s R&B. (Of the 10 songs here, all but two are over six minutes, and many are considerably longer.) It’s refreshing to see such a prominent pop musician challenge his audience and play with the format like this, and, at times, it pays off. The creepy-crawly nightclub tale “Don’t Hold The Wall,” the is-it-a-stalker-anthem “Tunnel Vision,” and the silky sex jam “Strawberry Bubblegum” generally benefit from the space they’re afforded, morphing into variations of their main themes as they close out. Elsewhere, Timberlake and co. stretch themselves with the nearly beatless closer “Blue Ocean Floor” and the “Let The Groove Get In,” which comes off like a Latin-flavored take on Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” And the two relatively shorter songs, “Suit & Tie” and the Southern groove “That Girl,” showcase Timberlake’s effortless charm and vocal ability, even if they aren’t as immediate as some of his past singles.
The major issue throughout The 20/20 Experience, though, is that it isn’t as inventive as it thinks it is, and many of these tracks don’t have enough ideas to justify their runtime. The wannabe psych-soul number “Spaceship Coupe” wears out its welcome long before it crosses the finish line; “Pusher Love Girl” begins superbly but pushes its love-as-drug metaphor far past its breaking point, while “Mirrors,” too, starts off as an exquisite pop gem before dragging on and on past the eight-minute mark. And even a few of the better tracks mentioned above, like “Let The Groove Get In,” would do well with some tightening up. Lyrics also continue to be a struggling point for Timberlake, too, mostly because he can’t quite sell himself as a ladykiller on record (which, for being an attractive Renaissance man, still seems odd). Sure, he doesn’t push the sex machine act as hard as he did in the past, but when he offers that “you can be my strawberry bubblegum/I can be your blueberry lollipop” on “Strawberry Bubblegum,” it’s unintentionally silly. And elsewhere, his attempts at sly pickup lines (“Everyone’s looking for the flyest thing to say/I just want to fly with you”) and mentions of sex on the Moon and a “space lover cocoon” only come off as the ramblings of Prince and André 3000’s clumsy younger brother. Timberlake obviously wanted to make a statement with his comeback, and it’s easy to see why he indulged in the more-is-more approach, but for an album called The 20/20 Experience, it simply isn’t all that visionary or compelling, even if its best moments rank among the best and most beautiful pop music of the year. At the same time, this record’s also evidence that he’s still a major force on the pop scene, and when Timberlake and his collaborators become better editors, they may be able to finally craft something as emotionally profound and sonically adventurous as their inspirations.