For seven years, Justin Timberlake has been pestered to release a brand new project after 2006's FutureSex/LoveSounds altered and introduced new landscapes to the Pop and R&B tapestry, leaving doubters and spectators salivating for the what next. In-between the time he was jabbed and jostled, he got his thespian on, took time to get hitched, and seemed content skirting on the edges of music with guest spots and production credits, most notably creating love, sex, and magic with Ciara and taking four minutes to save the world alongside Madonna. All that changed when at the beginning of this year he announced that he was 'ready' to return to the medium that first brought him success, leading fans to clutch onto the idea that he would churn out an album aligned in the ideals of LoveSounds, because you know, we are creatures of habit.
Even though newly coiffed (courtesy of Just For Me...I kid) and suited up in Rat Packer-esque flair, not much has really changed in the approach once Timberlake introduced his first singles from the project. He is just as entrenched in combing over the playbooks of Michael Jackson and Prince, and his choice to put his full trust in having long-time producing co-hort Timbaland once again handle all of the album leads one to believe that this old dog ain't learning or showing off any new tricks.
As the musical climate of today caters to the build-off of techniques first heard on LoveSounds, where dub-step and futuristic indie-soul is the avant garde alternative to the feeble R&B and Pop permeating the radio airwaves, and where new faces and potential icons emerge daily thanks to the Internet's strong hold on reshaping music far beyond thought in the time since LoveSounds, the query is how will Timberlake and Timbaland's bromance squeeze in? This is where The 20/20 Experience enters and attempts to answer that question.
Believe me, at first I wasn't convinced Timberlake was 'ready'. First single, "Suit & Tie" was a banal Lean Cuisine of a soul cut, with a nursing home bound Jay-Z warbling out dry rhymes. Truly, the song is not the crackle you want to come back after seven years with. So I hung on. Timberlake tries again with the hair band rock n' reel of "Mirrors" and it too didn't move me and felt like a derivative rehash of past single, "What Goes Around..." which was a play cousin (albeit good) of the superb, "Cry Me A River", one of the best singles Timberlake has ever released.
After ripping off those hangnails and crossing my fingers, keeping hope alive for the remainder of the 20/20 project, I was happy to hear how Timberlake did a bait and switch once "Pusher Love Girl" strolls in as the opener. Timberlake's falsetto is primed and channeling soul sultans of yore as they complement the track's sweeping strings that recall days when Prince was utilizing symphonic touches to his projects (see Parade and Jill Jones' epic "Mia Bocca"). It's ballroom soul, the kind that Timberlake has been hinting at since his *NSYNC days, and he is charming in it.
As the album travels downward he pulls out sumptuous stunners like the futuristic quiet storm of "Strawberry Bubblegum", which nicely closes out on a nod to *NSYNC's 2001 hit, "Pop" (!). The frenzied "Tunnel Vision" is packaged and decked out in a bow for single potential as Timberlake is in a refined pop-a-zoid trance of Timbaland's oblong beats, he wakes up from it when he goes for lightweight finger-snapping soul on "That Girl", which feature his back-up band, The Tennessee Kids and is probably the least complicated song on the album.
A different avenue Timberlake walks down when he pulls out the pensive and spacious "Blue Ocean Floor" as the closer. It's a rather interesting prog-soul ballad that reminds me of the mood pieces Ephraim Lewis or even Peter Gabriel have done in the past, just that Timberlake's attempt isn't as refined. The sensual groove of "Spaceship Coupe" has some weaves out some goofy sci-fi allegories and erotic squeals that squelch what could have been a serious baby maker. Still stick around for a neat guitar solo that rivals the type Babyface and L.A. Reid plugged into productions way back in the late 80's.
From the get-go we're supposed to re-establish Timberlake to a music environment that has moved on since LoveSounds, but we end up also acknowledging Timbaland's own resurgence. Once again we're swallowing his maniacal percussive technique that hasn't laced a hit in years, yet this time out, he sounds a bit more refreshed, and he flows without guard. It's obvious Timbaland is still missing Aaliyah, transferring what he would've done with her to a new muse, more so obvious on the chugging "Don't Hold The Wall" with all that slinky coyness in tow. Yet, he teases at some form of experiment when he completely morphs Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Something" into a wild carnival called "Let The Groove Get In" and it claws it's way in with an electric explosion of Latin and Fela Kuti inspired Afro style beats. Live horns zing amid the percussion in infectious and festive flair, and the song is just hard to shake ---and it's my absolute favorite here.
One can notice that 20/20 is a lot of things all at once, and as the album surges on, that isn't far from the truth. This patience for its complexity is tested when Timberlake and Timbaland get overzealous on the track lengths as nine out of ten tracks clock in for almost seven or eight minutes. The two of them were already leaning into epic connecting sound suites, as lest we forget , the pretty damn peerless connection of "My Love", "LoveStoned" and "What Goes Around..." on LoveSounds. To this day, it's one of the best surges I've ever heard on a pop album, and unfortunately, Timberlake and Timbaland know this, fiend quality for the grandiose and try to cram this technique it into all corners of this album. It's ambitious, of course, but some of these songs just don't need to be seven or eight minutes long ("Pusher Love Girl" and "Spaceship Coupe" are the worst offenders), as it brings down the quality of songs that were perfectly fine five minutes in.
Very chaotic, yet guarded, thin yet expansive, bleak yet jubilant, The 20/20 Experience is simply a messy pile of aural nachos where so many ingredients and ideas are piled on with boundless layers, that lots of napkins you'll need to sop up this indulging, delectable, calorie heavy fever dream (...and the dream is not done yet, because as of post time, 20/20 is slated to get a second installment come November).
Not that that's a horrible no good very bad thing, just that it's bloated construction makes flaws like lackluster lyrical displays and the album's tendency to indulge into annoying pretension more prominent. These nuisances almost mask how Timberlake is the most soulful he's ever sounded before, which to me, is one of the major pluses here.
Still 20/20's merit rests in that Timberlake and Timbaland had their hearts in the right place as they set out to make exactly what is extinct in the mainstream Pop and R&B sphere these days. Something that can't be digested in one sitting. Something that has some thought behind it. Something with a thematic vibe that attempts to diverge from the mundane pack. Something called an album.
Adele's 21 and its success tested that theory in 2011, but still we don't get too many like it especially when we're talking about the prominent fixtures plastered on the radio, cause when we do, we don't know what to do with them (see Janelle Monae's sprawling 2010 The ArchAndroid, as a prime example). That is why The 20/20 Experience bizarrely works, will stick around, and has me riveted. It flies in as the hapless, drunken anti-hero to salvage what has become of mainstream Pop and R&B, waking them up out of their mediocre dormancy, and at this juncture....we kind of need it.
So welcome back Justin Timberlake, you ol' schizoid pop star you.
The 20/20 Experience is available now in a regular and a deluxe edition.
Oh, I'm not quite done talking about this album yet, as I faced the firing squad when I took part in SoulBounce's SoundTable discussion. As a 'disclaimer': I warn that a lot of my original dialogue was edited out for post sake not to mention my like for the album has grown since the discussion took place. If you're interested you can view all of the madness here.