Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience Review
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 03.19.2013
Justin Timberlake makes his return to music with The 20/20 Experience, his first album in seven years! But is he able to invigorate pop music or is his vision off the mark? 411's Jeremy Thomas checks in with his full review!
It seems strange to think of Justin Timberlake as the guy from the Mickey Mouse Club who was part of 'NSync at this point. Timberlake's career has progressed so far and taken so many twists and turns that we certainly don't think of him in the same category as his former 1990s bandmates JC Chasez, Chris Kirkpatrick, Joey Fatone and Lass Bass. After leaving the group that broke Billboard records on the way to 50 million records sold, Timberlake stepped out into the limelight and proved himself as a vibrant part of the pop music genre with his 2002 album Justified and its 2006 follow-up FutureSex/LoveSounds. Timberlake wasn't comfortable resting on his laurels as a pop star, however; he soon made his way into acting with small in movies like Alpha Dog and Black Snake Moan before becoming a full-on movie star thanks to his work in The Social Network, Friends with Benefits and Trouble with the Curve. He has also become quite the entrepreneur with major endorsement deals and a host of charity work. He also owns an eco-friendly golf course and jointly purchased MySpace which he has turned from a carcass of the pre-Facebook social media era into a music-based social networking service. It would seem that there is little that the man cannot do.
Meanwhile, during Timberlake's absence from the music industry the pop genre has changed significantly. Many have accused it of becoming too artificial, relying on Auto-Tune and overdone production that smothers out all the emotion. With the rest of the entertainment world conquered to varying degrees, Timberlake has turned his attention back to his love of music and the skills that brought him to prominence in the first place. This brings us The 20/20 Experience, Timberlake's third studio album and his first in seven years, with the hopes that he can bring something to a genre that seems increasingly stale and obsessed with producing the same songs over and over with slight variations and new singers.
What becomes immediately apparent as the opening chords of this album hit your ears is that this is not Timberlake isn't remotely interested in following the current pop trend. You can actually see that just by looking at the tracklist and realizing that the ten songs comprise a mammoth seventy minutes. That kind of thing is unheard of among popular music today; radio likes songs that are three to four minutes in length so as not to risk people turning the dial for too long if they don't like the song. Timberlake has his mind back in the days of yore when album-oriented rock and Motown soul would produce longer hits because people didn't just want soundbites; they wanted albums. With The 20/20 Experience that is exactly what Timberlake gives us; this is an old-school album not just in length but in sound. The opening track, "Pusher Love Girl," starts off like a classic Sinatra song with a rise of strings that hit a pitch before dropping into a neo-soul sound. The lyrics equate love with drug addiction, but not in the tortured, emo-driven way that we might expect. This is a smooth, laid back jam in which the pop star eases his way around a few clunky metaphors and skillfully navigates several much better ones in a track that sets the stage for what to expect from the rest of the album.
From there we segue directly into the first single, "Suit & Tie." With Jay-Z providing one of the few guest appearances on the album (another example of how the LP eschews pop trends), Timberlake adopts a sexy swagger and gets playful here, taking the theme of the first song but easing back a touch with lyrics like "So thick now I know why they call it a fatty/And shit's so sick got a hit and picked up a habit/That's alright, 'cause you're all mine." It's a surprisingly smooth transition between songs and Jay shows up with an inspired verse that makes you wonder why so many featured artists fail to add anything to other songs across the charts. The song is extremely radio-friendly but also sounds completely unique from most of the music currently on the airwaves; like most of the rest of the album, it combines that retro sound with contemporary touches to great effect.
What's important to realize about the LP is that Timberlake hasn't set out to change the music industry, even if his sound has a vibrancy that pop music is desperately lacking and the disc is guaranteed to spur massive profits for RCA. With FutureSex/LoveSounds, Timberlake was an innovator and introduced elements into pop that are still felt to this day. One gets the feeling with The 20/20 Experience that Timberlake has no such aspirations this time around, or at least he isn't seeking to achieve what he obviously set out to do (and succeeded in doing) with that previous album. This disc is Timberlake setting out to simply make the kind of music that he wants to make and if it does have a positive impact on pop and R&B, then so much the better (we can hope). We can see that this is Timberlake doing what he loves again with just a glance at the credits, where his long-time musical collaborator Timbaland is featured prominently. Timbaland produced all the tracks and is credited with Timberlake all the way through a co-writer; he also features on "Don't Hold the Wall" as an artist. This is a more traditional pop-sounding track that could easily be heard in the club; that being said, it still has its own distinct sound and identity with a primal beat and a distinctly FutureSex-like sound as Timberlake lets his confidence out in full, singing "I heard your girlfriend tell you/you could do better/Well I'm the best ever." It's sure to be a hit once the radio edit is figured out.
While the album is absolutely a breath of fresh air though, it isn't perfect. While it's mostly a positive for the album that Timberlake refuses to be constrained by an airwave-appropriate song length, there are times where he just grows indulgent. "Pusher Love Girl" would be a slightly better track if it had been edited up a little bit; it does go on a bit overly long and the same could be said for the last track, "Blue Ocean Floor." This isn't to say that these are bad tracks--far from it--but they have somewhat outgrown their welcome by the time the last notes are playing. The only track on the album that would be considered a bit of lower-quality one would be "Spaceship Coupe," a slow jam that tries a little too hard to make its sci-fi analogy and comes off sounding fairly on the nose as a result. It's just lacking a finesse and originality that the rest of the album is and while the sound of the track is quite solid the lyrics don't quite hold up.
All in all those, these flaws are fairly minor. In fact, for a man that's been more or less out of the music game for almost a decade, you would expect missteps like this and probably more than there are on The 20/20 Experience. Timberlake has injected energy and depth into both R&B and pop music here and the results are very rewarding. But perhaps most importantly, he's inserted a feeling of fun. In an era where playfulness is sounds pre-packaged and the mainstream pop artists of quality prefer somber introspection, a little bit of honest, authentic merriment goes a long way.
The 411: Justin Timberlake makes a triumphant return to music with The 20/20 Experience, an R&B-tinged pop album that reminds us of an era when the genre used to be fun. With a sound that is both retro and forward thinking, Timberlake no longer has a need to prove himself; he is pop royalty by anyone's definition and there is an assured confidence to the album befitting that. At this stage, Timberlake is happy just making music and the enjoyment is infectious. With his longtime collaborator Timbaland deftly steering the way on the production side and Timberlake delivering solid lyrics and great vocals, this is one of the better pop music albums of the last several years and possibly one of the better pop albums since Timberlake left the industry seven years back.